Cate Blanchett stepped onto the red carpet on a cold night in Sydney’s central business district to launch the 58th Sydney Film Festival with its opening movie, Hanna, in which she stars alongside Saiorse Ronan (Atonement) and Eric Bana (Chopper, Troy).

The Festival features more than 150 movies from over 40 countries.

‘The best thing we hope is that people take a risk and go see something they might not otherwise have been exposed to,’ explains Festival Director Clare Stewart. ‘The diversity of films shown could change people’s perspectives and make them think differently about the world.’

Diversity is certainly a factor in the program. The 12 movies selected for official competition range from dreamlike epic Tree of Life, winner of Palme D’Or at Cannes and written and directed by Terrence Malick (Thin Red Line), Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood, a drama set in an Albanian village and winner of Best Screenplay at the Berlin festival, and Alexander Zeldovich’s futuristic Russian spectacle, Target.

Women writer/directors have a strong representation this year, following the trend noticed at Cannes for a higher percentage of female voices. Unique points of view are offered across all the categories, from Miranda July (Me and you and everyone we know) with her second feature The Future, Nanouk Leopold’s examination of female desire in The Brownian Movement and Scarlet Road, a poignant and brave documentary about a sex worker whose clients are disabled men. Julia Leigh’s erotic and disturbing Sleeping Beauty is also in competition.

Australia has a strong culture of short film making, boasting Tropfest as the largest short film festival in the world. 22 films are entered in competition this year including James Dean from the UK’s Lucy Asten Elliot, and Spike Jonze’ Scenes from the Suburbs, plus a further10 entries vying for the Dendy awards for Australian short films.

‘This is the fourth year for the Official Competition,’ says Stewart. ‘It means this Sydney-based festival is positioned on the global stage and that’s important for the Australian film industry. It’s essential for our film makers and audiences to see how Australian films sit within a global context.’

Stewart points to unrest in the Middle East as being strongly represented in the program.

‘Two films in Official Competition are from the Middle East, an Egyptian political drama, Cairo 678 and A Separation, by Iranian writer, director and producer Asghar Farhad, Both films are a testament to the way unrest in these regions is impacting on everyday life,’ she says.

The Festival hosts a special tribute of eight movies from Iran in honour of Iranian film makers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. The men were jailed for six years on charges of making movies against their country and deprived of their rights to make films for 20 years.

Stewart explains, ‘We join many international film festivals in taking a stand on this by showing these film makers’ work so the human rights issue can be seen for what it is – unjustifiable.’

Sydney Film Festival runs from 9-19 June