The storms had abated but it was still a wet and wild night in Sydney’s Central Business District. However, it didn’t deter the film goers attending the opening night of Sydney’s 59th Film Festival, titled Infinite Stories and featuring twelve international films in competition culled from entries submitted from around the globe, as well as a programme of scores more in every genre. Australia loves films; for a relatively young country Sydney can boast one of the oldest established festivals worldwide.
Several landmark city venues are opening their doors to host screenings, talks and live performances, including Sydney Town Hall, the Art Gallery of News South Wales, Dendy Cinema at Circular Quay, Events Cinemas and the Apple Store. However, it is the opulent Art Deco State Theatre that is the main location for screenings and gala events, including the red carpet and opening night film, and the awards ceremony on June 17th at which the winners of the 2012 Sydney Film Prize, the 2012 FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize and the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films will be announced.
The Opening Night film, Not Suitable for Children, is a first feature by Australian TV director Peter Templeman. A sexy comedy set in Sydney’s Inner West the story follows a group of twenty-something house mates enjoying the party life until Jonah (Ryan Kwanten, True Blood) is faced with premature infertility. The film’s landscape is Sydney’s bohemian suburbs while the soundtrack is feel good blues-rock.
Naturally the festival showcases Australian talent with two home grown movies in competition, including Lore from director Cate Shortland, whose previous success was Somersault (2004) starring Abbie Cornish. Lore is an adaptation of the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, a moving story that explores what happens to five young siblings in the aftermath of World War II. The other Australian entry is Dead Europe, directed by Tony Krawitz, which follows the journey of a Sydney photographer whose father’s death prompts a return to his ancestral homeland in Greece.
Also on the programme and far from the modern day colourful beauty of Sydney harbour, Australia’s darker past and colonisation’s impact on the indigenous people are explored in two documentaries, Coniston and escape from Croker Island.
Coniston cattle station in the Northern Territory was the scene for the murder of a white dingo trapper. The reprisals that followed resulted in the last known massacre of indigenous people. Denied a voice at the official inquiry this documentary allows the survivors to tell their story 80 years on.
Co-directed by Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty, the subjects tell their story in Warlpiri and Anmatyerre languages with English subtitles. ‘We make films about the old people, and we join with them when we are making the films,’ explains Kelly. ‘To feel the country and the people and the spirit of the film that wants to come out – that’s the responsibility on us.’
A particularly important feature for the Australian program is Mabo, the dramatisation of the life of Eddie Mabo who challenged the High Court over land rights for indigenous people and who died in prison age 55, just five months before the doctrine of ’empty land’ that had allowed the British to seize indigenous land for over 200 years.
The Official Competition Jury is presided over by AFI nominated writer/director Rachel Ward, wife of actor Bryan Brown and an acclaimed actress herself since her breakthrough role as Meggie Cleary in one of the most successful mini-series of all time, The Thorn Birds (1983). Other Jury members include Boyd van Hoeij, critic for U.S. Variety and a freelance film writer and Hong Kong producer Lorna Tee.
‘This is maybe my 30th or 40th jury,’ says van Hoeij. ‘It’s my first time in Australia so I’m most looking forward to seeing the audience reactions to the movies. I have no idea what an Australian audience will be like. ‘Australia is a very interesting film industry because it’s an English language cinema but it has its own identity. It feels like it’s part of the American and UK cinema but it’s definitely not, it has its own unique take.’
According to the Festival’s press statement, the films will be judged on ‘courage, audacity and cutting edge cinematic creations… and that provoke, court controversy, broaden our understanding of the world and say important things in innovative ways.’
Certainly, the broad slate of films selected for competition promises to deliver a terrific range of visual and emotional experiences.
Competition standouts include Beasts of the Southern Wild by first time director Benh Zeitlin and winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, about a bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. There’s also a lot of buzz around the Oscar nominated Mr Lazhar, a Canadian film about a teacher who helps a class of kids deal with the aftermath of a traumatic event, and Walter Salles’ take on Jack Kerouac in On the Road, starring Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge and Viggo Mortensen.
There are also powerful documentaries like Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die. Set in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, the prisoners are preparing to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and discover in the play’s themes of fraternity, power and betrayal parallels to their own lives. Other documentaries present rich explorations of fascinating personalities, from Tony Bennett recording his album with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga in the Zen of Tony Bennett, to iconoclastic artists Ai WeiWei and Marina Abramovic, and a definitive documentary charting Woody Allen’s career from teenage script writer and stand up comedian to incomparable Hollywood director.
Meanwhile, Sydneysiders and international filmgoers are flocking to the parties, expert talks, retrospectives and, of course, the movies. According to festival director Nashen Moodley,
‘Ticket sales are trending well against last year. Attendances are expected to exceed last year’s 112,000.’
That goal should be easily reached, judging by the capacity audience braving the wind and rain at the State Theatre last night.
Sydney Film Festival runs from the 6th – 17th June.