by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick, with additional writing from Jaymes Durante.
This morning Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley announced the films of the 2017 festival. It would be uncharitable to call this year’s program risk-averse but the selections for the more high-profile festival slots tended to be safe picks. Many of the most interesting films on offer, from documentaries by old masters to striking experimental voices, are tucked away in amongst the general features and documentary program sections; delving deep into this year’s program guide is vital.
The big news, as always, is the Official Competition, and for the third time in four years the opening night selection will be among the contenders.1 Warwick Thornton, best known for his 2009 Camera d’Or winner Samson & Delilah, makes his Sydney Film Festival feature debut with the free-wheeling docu-essay We Don’t Need a Map, which looks at the iconography of the Southern Cross as it relates to contemporary white Australian society and its place in Indigenous history.2 The film was shot by Thornton and his son, Dylan River, who has a short film playing at the festival this year, Finding Mawiranga (his second short and third film to play Sydney Film Festival, after Buckskin in 2013 and Nulla Nulla in 2015).
The headline-grabbing competition films are the Cannes imports: Sofia Coppola’s lush take on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Beguiled (which she has said will not be a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film of the same name and source) and Austrian master Michael Haneke’s intergenerational drama Happy End, which we trust will be something more compelling than the film its plot blurb promises (the multiple strands tale of an oblivious rich family living near a migrant camp). Another Cannes film, though one from last year, is the exciting debut from Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat, Wolf and Sheep, which frames itself around rural life and mythology in Afghanistan. The first feature helmed by a female director in the country, Sadat’s film took out the top prize at Director’s Fortnight.
Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi returns to SFF after 27 years with 2017 Berlinale Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul, a drama set in a slaughterhouse in Budapest. Also featured is the Silver Bear winner for best director, the latest from Finnish arthouse heavyweight Aki Kaurismäki, The Other Side of Hope (pictured above). The film, easily one of our most anticipated for the festival, is a deadpan take on the Finnish response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and it shares much more in common with the director’s recent comedy ventures – Le Havre (2011) and Lights in the Dusk (2006) – than the earlier realism of his Proletariat Trilogy (1988-1990). Not content with only two Berlinale grabs, Moodley also has Alain Gomis’ Félicité, a drama about a Congolese singer, which took out the Silver Bear Grand Jury prize. From Venice: Heli (2013) director Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, which took out the Silver Lion for Best Director at the festival. Escalante’s film cuts between realms of realism and sci-fi, with elements of horror and eroticism informing the work.
Two Sundance premieres are screening in the competition: Pop Aye, the debut from Singaporean director Kirsten Tan, is a take on the ‘road movie’ set across Thailand, and My Happy Family, from the Georgian directors of In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. My Happy Family is one of our most anticipated competition titles, not only because of In Bloom but also the continuing presence of young Romanian cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru at SFF, who shot last year’s Cinema, mon amour and was also behind the camera on Cristian Mungui’s Graduation, which also screens in this year’s festival.
Benedict Andrews moves from stage to screen for his feature debut Una, which we reviewed at the London Film Festival last year. The film, based on David Harrower’s 2005 play Blackbird, stars Rooney Mara (in three films this festival) and Ben Mendelsohn. The final film in the competition, and only the second documentary, is Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated James Baldwin essay film I Am Not Your Negro, which we lauded in our teaser films piece last month.
A surprising omission from the competition, considering its director and place in the Cannes competition, is the Closing Night film this year: Bong Joon-ho’s relatively less intense creature feature Okja. Director Bong, whose previous film was similarly in English, Snowpiercer, will also be in attendance at the festival. It’s worth noting that Sydney Film Festival will be playing host to some of the very few screenings of the film in a cinema; it hits Netflix on June 28.
This year’s Special Presentation screenings at the State Theatre are notably weaker, or at least less interesting, than in the past. The program consists mainly of various feel good comedies (Madame, Hotel Salvation, Ali’s Wedding), Sundance hits (Patti Cake$, Ingrid Goes West) and sobering documentaries about nature (Blue, Mountain) – not exactly the most surprising cinematic fare. Notable among them, though, is The Party, a farce from British director Sally Potter (Orlando, Ginger & Rosa) that takes on the all-too-familiar locked room dinner party comedy with a stacked cast led by Kristin Scott-Thomas. Also at the State: Fatih Akin returns to SFF after an 11-year absence with In the Fade, a German-language thriller set in the wake of a terrorist attack in Hamburg, and Luca Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name, which our contributor Eloise Ross called “one of the most honest reflections of human behaviour I have seen in years.”
There are some gems tucked away in the many other features on offer, though. There’s the final film from Polish auteur Andrej Wajda, biopic Afterimage, and the new film from Terrence Malick, the SXSW-set Song to Song. Also from SXSW, their Grand Jury prize winner Most Beautiful Island, a psychological thriller about an undocumented immigrant in New York City (played by the film’s writer and director, Ana Asensio). Child’s Pose (2013) director Calin Peter Netzer returns to SFF with Ana, Mon Amour, a tumultuous decade-long romance told through disjointed flashbacks, which seems not too far off the synopsis for Gabe Klinger’s Porto, also screening this year. We’re also excited for Lee Sang-il’s Rage, an adaptation of a novel by Japanese crime novelist Shuichi Yoshida, and Josef Hader’s Berlinale competition entry Wild Mouse, a bizarre comedy with the collapse of print media as its backdrop. As expected, Raoul Peck now has two films screening at SFF, with his political biopic The Young Karl Marx announced today.
Perhaps the festival’s most risky (and also satisfying) programming comes in their trio of films from Locarno last year: experimental Thai film By The Time It Gets Dark, from director Anocha Suwichakornpong; João Pedro Rodrigues’ masterful erotic and explicit queer film The Ornithologist; and Akihiko Shiota’s ‘roman porno’ homage Wet Woman in the Wind. Missing from this Locarno set, sadly, are some other highly anticipated films: Eduardo Williams’ experimental The Human Surge, Theo Anthony’s essay doc Rat Film and Radu Jude’s surreal biopic Scarred Hearts.
Some odd choices are peppered throughout the program, though perhaps none as strange as Manifesto, a single channel film version of Julian Rosefeldt’s gallery installation, which was on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from May 2016 until February this year. That fact rates a mention in the festival guide, though the lack of any other gallery installation works being translated to film in the festival suggests that playing with the divide between art and film is of less interest than being able to sell tickets to ‘a Cate Blanchett film’.
This morning we were told the Australian cohort made up “23%” of the program, though there are actually only 23 feature films from Australia screening (outside of retrospectives). Ten of those make up the Documentary Australia competition, leaving thirteen for the rest of the program, either an indictment of festival programming or, more likely, film production in Australia. The most interesting of those thirteen is, of course, Warwick Thornton’s We Don’t Need a Map, the sole Australian film in competition, and among the remainders, Kriv Stenders’ The Go-Betweens: Right Here, seems a cut above most talking head music documentaries.
There’s a questionable absence of East Asian films in the program this year too, with a single film out of China, another one from Hong Kong, two from South Korea, and three from Japan (excluding the Kurosawa retrospective), or better put: a total of seven films from a group of countries with a collective population of 1.5 billion. Not to stress the point too much, but France, with 66 million (less than a percentage of the former) has 34 productions and co-productions in the festival. When SFF programmed a China focus several years ago, they offered up some of the best films of the entire festival – from Wang Bing’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part to Yang Heng’s Lake August. Both directors have since released films, Wang’s Bitter Money played at Venice, and Yang’s Ghost in the Mountains premiered at the Berlinale.
It’s a perplexing move in that there’s no shortage of films to choose from. Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues, Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water, Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, Tsai Ming-Liang’s swansong of Afternoon, Midi Z’s City of Jade and The Road to Mandalay, or considering the Locarno-influence at points here, Katsuya Tomita’s Bangkok Nites. With the collapse of Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, which consistently delivered bold programming on East Asian cinema, there’s an imperative for Australian film festivals to pick up the slack. Considering that films from the region have sold and performed well in past SFF programs, it remains a notable and confusing omission amongst their 2017 offering.
In keeping with this, we are being treated to a country focus on Canadian cinema this year (in honour of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation), though only one film in that program stands out to us: Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit, an Inuit remake of John Ford’s The Searchers that challenges the racial politics and dynamics of the typical Western by virtue of its transposition; the much-lauded Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is as bloated as its title.
For this year’s Documentary Australia Foundation Award, many of the strongest selections have set their focuses abroad. One of these is editor Kate Hickey’s Roller Dreams, which frames itself around California’s Venice Beach in 1984, where a trend of roller dancing – roller skating and dancing – finds itself in conflict with another emerging trend in the area: gentrification.
There’s a lot of context positioning Luke Walker’s PACmen – which begins as meditation on the question of why Ben Carson ran for president – as one of the most intriguing documentaries in the selection: focused on the inside workings of the Super-PAC that convinced Carson to run, delving into the increasing influence of money in US politics in the process. Carson’s fail-prone campaign didn’t land him the nomination, but this documentary comes after the retired neurosurgeon was appointed as The United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a field Carson has had no prior involvement in. Within these broader circumstances, Walker’s film is likely to offer a stark portrait of the extent to which money informs politics, and eventuates in policy accordingly.
Every year, the international documentaries program brings in some of the best films of the festival, and there’s high hopes for some of the offerings in 2017. Two highly anticipated European documentaries from festival regulars are both about tourism: Napalm, the latest from 91-year-old Claude Lanzmann (Shoah), is about his fascination with North Korea, and Sergei Loznitsa’s 2016 film Austerlitz, about the behaviour of people visiting Nazi death camps today.3
Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide is also one of the highlights; it took out the top prize at IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, late last year. There’s no shortage of documentaries centered around war, or set in war zones, this year, with the conflict in Syria in particular appearing throughout the broader program. Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon’s The War Show looks at the latter’s time as Syrian radio DJ in the early days of the Arab Spring. In the same range is another film about the White Helmets in Syria, Last Men in Aleppo, directed by Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen.
Closer to home, Chauka Please Tell Us The Time – from directors Behrouz Boochani, Arash Kamali Sarvestani – offers a glance inside Australia’s infamous Manus Island detention centre. Boochani shot footage in secret within the centre, before sending it to The Netherlands where it was edited together. The two filmmakers wanted to “document the situation so that in the future no political leader can present a distortion narration of the events.” With the current climate and secrecy surrounding the centre in Australia, the film is likely to make an impact.
Laura Poitras’ access-all-areas Julian Assange documentary Risk should prove a hot ticket-seller for the festival, as the ethical quandaries around the film’s production, not to mention its total disappearance after premiering at Cannes last year, mark it as much a potentially insightful work as a documentary spectacle. Another documentary involves an odd and infamous subject: French novelist and walking cause célèbre Michel Houellebecq, who must be one of Nashen Moodley’s favourite performers, as his appearance alongside Iggy Pop in the documentary To Stay Alive – A Method is his third SFF outing (though first documentary appearance), after The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq in 2014 and Near Death Experience in 2015.
The European Female Filmmakers selection, which debuted last year, continues in 2017 looking to become one of the more rewarding and substantial recent additions to the program. Teona Struga Mitevska’s When the Day Had No Name meditations on the ethnic tensions and violence in Macedonia, as a highly topical work in light of the current divisions and stresses currently in the country. On the lighter side of things, Tizza Covi’s Mister Universo, which premiered in the Official Competition at Locarno, follows a circus troupe throughout Italy. Rusudan Glurjidze’s House of Others looks at the aftermath of post-war Georgia in the 1990s.
Ama-san from Portugal’s Cláudia Varejão, and School Life from Ireland’s Neasa Ni Chianáin round out the documentaries in the selection, while Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Overkill is the latest in a seemingly endless string of films about the hedonistic party lifestyle of Berlin. The film could surprise, sure, but the premise isn’t doing it any favours. One of the biggest omissions in the program out of Europe is Locarno’s Golden Leopard winner Godless, from Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova. While it’s understandable that the film would struggle to find a place in the general feature selection, in terms of films helmed by women in Europe in the last year, Godless has been one of the most lauded in the festival circuit.
We have already written up our feelings on the festival’s Essential Kurosawa retrospective and were waiting to see what other retrospective strands the festival would offer up, with the hopes of something more experimental and surprising. They’ve delivered, sort of. Two new retrospective strands were revealed today. One, called Feminism & Film, is a welcome and long-overdue Australia-focused retrospective, centered on films made by female filmmakers in Sydney across the 1970s and 1980s. Curated by Susan Charlton, the program is divided into three sections – Personal & Political, Disruption & Deconstruction, and Culture & Collaboration – all of which showcase a mix of feature-length and shortform works. There are some familiar names among the collaborators – legendary former University of Sydney lecturer Laleen Jayamanne’s experimental film A Song of Ceylon screens, and Margot Nash co-directed the short We Aim to Please and the documentary For Love or Money: A History of Women and Work in Australia, which looks to be essential viewing.
The other new retrospective program, Smash It Up, is all about punk rock. Though the films in question, programmed by Richard Kuipers, are all fairly standard selections – two Sex Pistols docs among them – it provides the opportunity to see films from John Waters (Desperate Living), Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilisation) and Derek Jarman (Jubilee) all on the big screen. A music retrospective begs for comparison with the Sounds on Screen program of documentaries, which seems less necessary with each passing year. Films like Stenders’ Go-Betweens documentary, curious North Korea-set tour documentary Liberation Day, a mockumentary from Michael Winterbottom (!), and Nick Broomfield’s controversial Whitney Houston film don’t need a music specific section to find an audience.
Legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami – who passed away late last year – will have his Palme d’Or winning Taste of Cherry playing as part of the restoration selections at the festival. Kiarostami is also the subject of a documentary playing at the festival, 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, which screens alongside the director’s final short, Take Me Home – a minimal and poignant end to one of cinema’s most loved and respected figures.
There are three restorations of Australian films from the 80s and 90s: Pat Fiske’s 1985 Green Bans documentary Rocking the Foundations, John Duigan’s Ben Mendelsohn-starring rural drama The Year My Voice Broke, and Samantha Lang’s psychological drama starring Miranda Otto, The Well. Rounding off the section is Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. This particular restoration of Buñuel’s film premieres at Cannes in the coming weeks.
Richard Kuipers’ other program strand is the crowd favourite genre-fest Freak Me Out. There’s been some great word of mouth for Aussie home invasion flick Better Watch Out, which quickly shifts from discomforting teen comedy to a grippingly suspenseful horror film. Yet again, there’s a more obvious arthouse pick, José Pedro Lopes’ surreal black and white The Forest of Lost Souls (which sounds like a genre remake of Gus van Sant’s much maligned Sea of Trees), but for our money the grubbier the better, and none sounds more like that than Fashionista, from director Simon Rumley (Red, White & Blue).
Also on offer this year is the Box Set, which will feature the first two episodes of the new season of ABC TV show Cleverman (both episodes are directed by SFF favourite Wayne Blair), the all-new Screenability program strand, which presents films about and made by those with disabilities, and an even bigger virtual reality program at the SFF Hub in Lower Town Hall, which caught out eye in particular because a work from documentarian Matthew Bate, Once Upon A Time in the Western Suburbs, is among them.
While there is still time for some late announce titles, those almost always come from Cannes. As such, there are some major festival films notably absent from this year’s program, including American director Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and may yet show up later this year at MIFF, a festival with an established relationship with the director. Bertrand Bonello’s fascinating Nocturama, which made waves at Toronto in 2016, was expected by many to appear, as was It Comes at Night, the second film from Krisha (2015) director Trey Edward Schultz, which seemed a lock for the festival’s Freak Me Out sidebar. No films by the prolific Hong Sang-soo, who won Locarno’s Golden Leopard in 2015 with audience favourite Right Now, Wrong Then, and has four films currently circulating (including Claire’s Camera and The Day After, both Cannes-bound), will screen at this year’s festival, adding to the overall lacklustre representation of East Asian films. Those hoping for a sneak peek at Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver will have to wait for its general release on July 13, as will fans of James Gray, whose Lost City of Z has already been released stateside and will bow in August on Australian shores.
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.