Written by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick, with additional research from Jessica Ellicott.
Sydney Film Festival seem to have set the stage for a radical overhaul in 2019. Gone is the glowing D logo launched in 2007, the one that survived several typeface changes and, until this coming festival, was a more constant fixture than the Official Competition. The first year we had this particular D, it was represented on the program guide as a spotlight, a singling out of the individual best and brightest in local and international cinema. The new visual stylings jettison the spotlight for no light at all – clean, flat, squashed text that appears to be a thinner version of the design used by the Festival in 1965. It, along with a veritable suite of similar mock logos (which seem to suggest that the primary logo, too, is just a lark) are harking for the familiar – though without any rough edges.
It’s almost too easy to point the finger at its superficiality. Almost. The promise of a new update on the old is nowhere to be seen in the program; despite what a snazzy Facebook Live hosted by a YouTuber might have you think, this is nothing new at all – in fact, it’s all much of the same, in program strands, in the whittling away of screenings on celluloid (the gall of having a ‘Prints By SFF’ logo when only 7 of your 27 retrospective screenings are on film!), and in the presence of David Stratton to sell a retrospective.1
If anything, this year’s festival program is less loud and less bold than in years past. Whilst of course there are strong films in a majority of the program strands, on the whole there’s a pervasive sense of stasis. Perhaps that’s a case of unfortunate circumstance: the festival’s long overdue Agnès Varda retrospective (screening after ACMI’s own run in Melbourne) comes only after her recent passing (though, to be fair to the festival’s programmers, this one was in the works for some time), and the Stratton retrospective on trailblazing Australian women directors resembles a similar one at MIFF in 2017.2 It’s good to see SFF pick up the all-nighter baton from MIFF this year, though, with a lovely tribute to longtime programmer Jenny Neighbour, who is bringing an eclectic set of her favourite films to Newtown: David Lynch’s Eraserhead, John Waters’ Female Trouble, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!.
Where direct continuation is most appreciated in this year’s program is in the subdued Official Competition (though whether you can call a comp with Almodóvar and Bong Joon-ho in it truly subdued is debatable). Last year we noted that the prevailing trend was stories told at the margins and fresher faces up for the top prize; this year the number of filmmakers with three of less films under their belt is roughly the same but the overall focus isn’t as clear. It is an idiosyncratic set of clusters, with three Cannes competitors (Bong Joon-ho’s family centric thriller Parasite, Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical Pain and Glory and Brazillian filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ political tale Bacurau), three debut features from trans-Tasman filmmakers (Hamish Bennett’s small-town Kiwi drama Bellbird and the two Australian films in competition: Ghosthunter director Ben Lawrence’s war photography thriller Hearts and Bones and actor Mirrah Foulkes’ fantastical Judy & Punch), a pair from the Berlin competition (Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska’s feminist satire God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya and Golden Bear-winning Synonyms, from Israeli director Nadav Lapid), two Sundance Jury Prize winners (Alejandro Landes’ child soldier fable Monos and Joanna Hogg’s hotly anticipated memoir-esque The Souvenir) and two diametrically opposed remainders: Oscar-nominated art pseudo-bio Never Look Away from Oscar-winning The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and the raw social drama Dirty God, a UK-set story from Sacha Polak, a filmmaker from the Netherlands, which premiered at Rotterdam.
This year, the Special Presentations at the State is clinically arranged by demographic. Kids, music fans, cinephiles, and self-described cinephiles are catered to. Yes, the Jarmusch (zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die) and the Denis (High Life, which played at the Alliance Française French Film Festival everywhere except Sydney) are the drawcards but the selections that have piqued our interests are the films that would usually find themselves stuck in smaller cinemas: the Bolsonaro-baiting Brazillian historical thriller Marighella, Partho Sen-Gupta’s follow-up to Sunrise, the Western Sydney-set mystery Slam and the already mentioned three-hour Chinese independent film So Long, My Son, which picked up dual acting awards at the Berlinale. Though it is screening in the State, we’re a bit perplexed as to why Amazing Grace has been pushed to the Sounds on Screen section; its journey to the screen — it was filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1972 but never seen until now — was surely worth a bit more fanfare.
While there’s enough films to easily fill a pass from the international selection at the festival alone, a lot of the international picks outside of Europe and the US (the latter of which utterly dominates the documentary offerings) feel largely uninspired. 2018’s program produced one of SFF’s strongest – both in quality and breadth – international programs in years, and 2019’s program looks unlikely to match it, in part because of a concerted drop in the number of films from China, South East Asia and the Middle East. That there are only three features from China this year’s program is a shock, especially considering the size of the country, the strength of the film industry there and the history of films from China selling out in the program with relative ease. While Up The Mountain and, arguably more so, So Long, My Son are highlights amongst the broader program, the handful of films that make up the selection from China is underwhelming. It’s a surprise that Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night isn’t here, or even Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds.
There’s also a clear run of highly political films that serve as a country’s only appearance in the festival. From Malaysia, we’ve got The Kleptocrats, which looks at the captivating political scandal that has gripped the country’s sociopolitical sphere over the last several years. From Vietnam, The Third Wife looks at “a teenager in an arranged marriage… who learns quickly about her world’s suffocating patriarchy.” For the Philippines it’s “Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs” while the latest Lav Diaz is nowhere to be seen (though our appetite for duration is sated by the restoration of Sátántangó). In Cyprus, “a repressed Cypriot housewife”. Colombian competition title Monos is described in the program as a comment “on the dehumanising effect of war and the seemingly endless cycles of violence in many South American nations.” The only Chinese-US co-production is about the “underreported consequences” of the one child policy. From Turkey, there’s two films – A Tale of Three Sisters and Sibel; the former about “a domineering father trying to control his three daughters”, the latter about “a rebellious mute young woman” who “fights back against religious and social conventions.” This isn’t to say these Turkish films are not important or valuable in a festival like SFF – but, more so, to criticise their inclusion at the expense of films like Tarik Aktas’ Dead Horse Nebula, or Gürcan Keltek’s short Gulyabani.
While New Zealand might seem to be a less inspired County in Focus choice considering its proximity to Australia, the selection offers a handful of films likely to project a more complex representation of one our country’s most immediate neighbours. Highlights range from Heperi Mita’s Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, looking at her mother’s 1988 feature Mauri, described as “the first feature film ever to be made by an Indigenous woman” in the country, Vai – a portmanteau feature film made by 9 female Pacific filmmakers – and, curiously, Capital in the 21st Century: a documentary about the French economist Thomas Piketty, conveniently slotted into the New Zealand selection by virtue of the director’s country of birth rather than any local focus.
That convenience cuts both ways, though, because the two most interesting documentaries in the Documentary Australia Foundation Award (for our money) look to be two Australian-made films set in America: Martha: A Picture Story from director Selina Miles, a bio-doc about New York graffiti photographer Martha Cooper, and White Light, artist George Gittoes’ film about civilian deaths in Chicago, which marks his first return to filmmaking in the States since Rampage in 2006. Other Australian films of note: Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter, which profiles Adam Goodes through media coverage of his final three years in the AFL; Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, a bloody revenge tale that sounds a world away from her hit The Babadook (which screens in Stratton’s retrospective this year); AFTRS graduate film Sequin in a Blue Room, which turns queer app addiction into a pseudo-detective thriller; and Dark Place, a Freak Me Out title that is Australia’s first Indigenous horror anthology film. On that point, the festival’s selection of feature films by Indigenous Australians seems shockingly small: only Dark Place and She Who Must Be Loved in full length and the two half-hours from a Screen Australia’s State of Alarm initiative, Saving Seagrass and Warburdar Bununu: Water Shield.3 The absence of the Screen Black initiative, which ended in 2016, has been pretty clearly felt now, with no specific retrospective to fill the void a la last year’s Indigenous Shorts screenings.
The retention of the festival’s experimental section, Flux, is good to see, though only a few of the titles stand out for us: Present.Perfect, a Hong Kong film made up entirely of Chinese livestream footage (from vloggers, not a la Dragonfly Eyes), which took home the Tiger Award at Rotterdam this year, and meditative nature film Walden, comprised of 360-degree panning shots that follow the journey of one felled tree from Austria to Brazil. Freak Me Out this year is all surprises, with only two notable names in the director’s seat (Ant Timpson for the Elijah Wood-starring Come to Daddy and indie kingpin Larry Fessenden for contemporary Frankenstein tale Depraved) and a slew of strange loglines: the return of an evil imaginary friend (Daniel Isn’t Real), a haunted house tale transposed to the Western frontier (The Wind) and a non-linear Russian bloodbath set mostly in one room (the Sion Sono sounding Why Don’t You Just Die!). From the always welcome European Women in Film program, we’re looking forward to the experimental-sounding Dutch film Retrospekt and May el-Toukhy’s Sundance Audience Award-winner Queen of Hearts, both of which center on probing ethical boundaries.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell in the features section of this year’s program, considering the conspicuous absence of his previous films at SFF. Headlined by Elisabeth Moss as a pop-punk princess in a ‘train wreck in five acts’, the film is one of ARP’s most formally accomplished to date. Peter Strickland’s fashion-horror In Fabric also looks to be a welcome new creation from the inventive director of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas calling it “one of the most stylistically ambitious and genuinely overwhelming movies in recent memory” in her review. Mark Jenkin’s 16mm postsynched fishing feature Bait has been on our radar since its rave reviews out of the Berlinale earlier this year. Sudanese director hajooj kuka (Beats of the Antonov, SFF 2015) returns to the festival with aKasha, his first fiction feature, a wryly observational comedy set among the civil war. Other choice picks from known auteurs include Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, whose 2015 Entertainment was a favourite of ours, Denis Côté’s undead mood piece Ghost Town Anthology, Neon Bull director Gabriel Mascaro’s Brazilian sci-fi Divine Love and Carlos Reygadas’ lengthy existential drama Our Time.
Highlights from the festival’s documentary selections include Frederick Wiseman’s latest portrait of American life, Monrovia, Indiana, which profiles the overwhelmingly white, rural titular town; Anand Patwardhan’s four-hour IDFA-winner Reason, which looks at the deaths of two activists, Narender Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, and the rise of violent Hindi nationalism in India; and Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy, an exploration of political turmoil in Brazil – a tale of how the country’s most popular politician was imprisoned while a fringe candidate, backed by the neofascist echoes of the country’s two-decade military dictatorship, ended up in power.
Films from lesser established filmmakers worth noting in the documentary section include Frank Beauvais’ cine-memoir Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveller, a tense account of his family’s search for asylum, Andre Hörmann‘s Ringside, an American family boxing drama filmed over eight years, and Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees, which profiles the Sudanese Film Club and their efforts to bring an old movie theatre back to life.
A final note: this program is not yet complete, with two announcements remaining. The first is which film will be screened on the festival’s closing night, the second (thought more likely than not linked to the first) is the late Cannes additions. Last year there was a slew of incredible last-minute additions: Shoplifters, The Image Book, Burning, Climax, Cold War, among others. We’ll update this piece once those announcements have been made.
Disclosure: editors Conor Bateman and Jessica Ellicott were on the Film Advisory Panel for Sydney Film Festival this year. A similar note to this will appear at the bottom of all of the pieces they write during the festival, though they will not write about any of the films they viewed during that process.