Written by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick.
This is our fifth year of covering Sydney Film Festival, so if there’s any certainty in the world, we can say it’s this: the SFF teaser line-up will be chock-a-block full of films from Sundance Film Festival. It makes some sense, it’s a big January festival with lots of audience friendly fare, both in terms of features and documentaries. And while we could (and perhaps will) shrug at some of the Park City premieres listed below, there is one film from the pack we want to single out first:
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (pictured above), which took home a Grand Jury Prize in Utah, is the second feature film from Iranian-American writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan, whose Appropriate Behavior was one of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Film Festival. Cameron Post — adapted from a novel inspired by a MySpace post — hops on the recent ‘90s-period film train, and follows a newly orphaned girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) whose sexual experimentation (prom queen, back seat) prompts her conservative aunt to send her to a “gay conversion” camp. According to accounts of the film in January, it’s no update of But I’m a Cheerleader!, but it does intend to appeal directly to a younger audience than that film (and than Appropriate Behavior).
Of the remaining 25 films announced this morning, 7 are also Sundance alums. The most unusual (in release, not subject matter) is Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger’s documentary Cold Blood: The Clutter Family Murders, which aired as a four-part series on the Sundance Channel in late 2017. If “Clutter Family” rings a bell, then it’s likely you’ve read (or seen) In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s classic 1959 profile of senseless violence in rural Kansas. Here Berlinger interviews descendants of the Clutter Family to paint a more true and intimate portrait of their lives and the town they live in.
Another true crime film we’re curious to see is Bart Layton’s American Animals. Layton, best known for directing the twisty documentary The Imposter, has now made the jump to fiction features, though that jump is more of a ‘two steps forward, one step backward’ kinda thing. American Animals is a college student heist film anchored by Barry Keoghan — relatively standard crowdpleaser fare, but wait — who is frequently interrupted by his real-life counterpart and co, who comment on the re-enactment of their thwarted thievery.
And if the titles of the three films explored above are a touch on the nose, here’s maybe the best title of the pack: Mug. Małgorzata Szumowska’s film, a deadpan Polish satire that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale, sees the country’s first ever recipient of a facial transplant become suddenly aware of the prejudices simmering under the surface of his small border town. Much like Glory, the hilarious Bulgarian satire that traversed the festival circuit last year, Mug is in part ripped from the headlines, as the townsfolk in the film welcome the building of the world’s biggest statue of Jesus. The real statue was erected in Świebodzin in 2010.
A film that prompted debate within and without last year’s Sydney Film Festival was Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, an intense and violent film about a transwoman (Daniela Vega) mourning the death of her lover. Lelio is back for a third time at SFF with Disobedience, which had its premiere at TIFF last year, and stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as women reckoning with faith and sexuality in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York.
Another focus we’ve noticed in this teaser announcement is films set in the Middle East, from a music doc about an Afghani metal band (RocKabul) to an intimate portrait of life as a Syrian refugee (The Long Season). Documentaries about conflict in the region have been a film festival staple since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, but The Deminer, which won a Special Jury Award at IDFA, looks to be a more unique example of the form. As the title would suggest, it’s a portrait of a man named who spends his days removing explosive mines as part of the Iraqi Peshmerga, but its the approach taken: told entirely through archival video footage, that gives the film a more than uneasy dimension. Here’s hoping the filmmakers transcend the shock value of their source material.
Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot took out the Grand Prize at Venice Film Festival and, in turn, earned the ire of Israel’s minister of culture Miri Regev, who slammed the film for its “anti-Israel narrative”, which hinges on the decisions of a group of Israeli soldiers at a remote checkpoint. While Regev went on to admit she hadn’t actually seen the movie, the cultural stoush is indicative of the broader context Maoz’s film emerges from. Following on from the much-lauded Lebanon in 2009, Foxtrot carries a lot of expectations coming into the festival.
Across the border is Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueri’s The Insult, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year alongside SFF 2017 titles On Body and Soul, A Fantastic Woman, The Square, as well as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. The Insult explores the divisions in Lebanese society through a legal battle between a Muslim Palestinian and a Maronite Christian.
For families, there’s the near-universally acclaimed The Breadwinner, the latest effort from Nora Twomey, who co-directed the Academy Award-nominated animated feature The Secret of Kells. The Breadwinner, which also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, follows an Afghani girl who impersonates a boy, becoming her family’s primary earner and caretaker after her father is wrongly detained by Taliban forces. It looks to be a strong, if slight, introduction for a younger audience to some of the oppressive social issues playing out within regions affected by global asymmetrical warfare.
The teaser has also given us a sense of the tone of this year’s Freak Me Out selections, with two surprising titles announced. The first is a neo-giallo riff from Eyes Of My Mother (SFF 2016) director Nicolas Pesce, Piercing – a loose adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel, which sees an awkward man (Christopher Abbott) fail miserably to realise his morbid fetishes when faced with a living, breathing, BDSM aficionado (Mia Wasikowska). The darkly-comic film found a warm reception at Sundance, in part thanks to its subversion of the tropes of sadistic patriarchal murder-fantasies that often saturate festival genre sidebars.
The other FMO film is in a different world entirely: The League of Gentlemen’s adaptation of their popular stage play Ghost Stories. It draws heavily on the work of William Castle and Amicus Productions to create a haunted anthology spookfest that’s sure to please fans of B-movie schlock, especially those with the brains to match the bizarre – think House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler or Thirteen Ghosts. Coming fresh from London Film Festival, with the backing of IFC Midnight in the US, Ghost Stories is likely to fulfill the festival’s extremely necessary jump-scare quota and present a fun night out for those seeking cheap thrills, chills and possibly even some spills.
And, of course, there are the guaranteed seat-filling films: a profile of an acclaimed fashion designer (Westwood), a film about young entrepreneurs and/or food (Chef Flynn), the dog equivalent of Kedi (Pick of the Litter), an enviro-activist film (Inventing Tomorrow), an animated kids’ film whose lead CGI creature is described as ‘plucky’ (Maya the Bee: The Honey Games), and an eyebrow-raising Screen Australia-funded documentary (I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story).
The sole retrospective work announced today, as part of a continuing partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive, is Gillian Armstrong’s iconic 1979 Miles Franklin adaptation My Brilliant Career, starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill. This programming decision could be read as following on from last year’s Feminism and Film series in Sydney and, more directly, the screenings of Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1987) at MIFF last year. Along with the major retrospective announcement in mid-March, though, it’s hard not to see this programming decision as representative of an unrealised promise: Sydney Film Festival has never had a female director for its annual director retrospective.
Although he shares the same initials as David Stratton’s 2017 pick for the SFF director retrospective, Aki Kaurismäki is a bolder choice than Kurosawa – and one more likely to divide crowds.1 That may be because audiences will expect variations on Kaurismäki’s most recent film, The Other Side of Hope (which screened to wide acclaim at SFF last year), which is arguably his most accessible: warmly nostalgic in tone, it neatly balances a semblance of slapstick comedy with a resonant sociopolitical focus.
Of the retrospective, we’d recommend The Proletariat Trilogy in particular, which shares little in common with Kaurismäki’s more upbeat works. Shadows in Paradise is relatively light: portraying a relationship between a supermarket employee and a garbage man. The second film, Ariel, deals with a coal miner tasked with finding a new life after his mine ceases operations. The Match Factory Girl, the last film in the trilogy, is built around cruelty and devastation experienced by a young factory worker – and one of Kaurismäki’s most impressive, unrelenting, and severe pieces.
It’s these harsher and more austere works of Kaurismäki’s that make his selection a more brave choice than, say, Martin Scorsese was in 2016. A.K.’s films are explicitly political, and overwhelmingly focused on tales of the downtrodden. A festival audience is going to experience an unexpected degree of discomfort watching many of the films in the selection, and this is largely the point.
Learn more about the SFF teaser program on their website.
Sydney Film Festival – 2018 Teaser Films
American Animals (dir. Bart Layton)
Anchor and Hope (dir. Carlos Marques-Marcet)
Disobedience (dir. Sebastián Lelio)
Foxtrot (dir. Samuel Maoz)
Ghost Stories (dir. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson)
Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik)
Maya The Bee: The Honey Games (dir. Noel Cleary, Sergio Delfino and Alexs Stadermann)
Mug (dir. Małgorzata Szumowska)
Piercing (dir. Nicolas Pesce)
Samui Song (dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
The Breadwinner (dir. Nora Twomey)
The Insult (dir. Ziad Doueri)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
West of Sunshine (dir. Jason Raftopoulos)
Chef Flynn (dir. Cameron Yates)
Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (dir. Joe Berlinger)
Genesis 2.0 (dir. Maxim Arbugaev and Christian Frei)
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (dir. Jessica Leski and Rita Walsh)
Inventing Tomorrow (dir. Laura Nix)
Lots of Kids, A Monkey and A Castle (dir. Gustavo Salmerón)
Pick of the Litter (dir. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy)
RocKabul (dir. Travis Beard)
The Deminer (dir. Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal)
The Long Season (dir. Leonard Retel Helmrich)
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (dir. Lorna Tucker)
My Brilliant Career (dir. Gillian Armstrong, 1979)
Aki Kaurismäki – Director Retrospective
Crime and Punishment (1983)
Shadows in Paradise (1986)
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)
The Match Factory Girl (1990)
La Vie De Boheme (1992)
Drifting Clouds (1996)
The Man Without a Past (2002)
Lights in the Dusk (2006)
Le Havre (2011)