Sydney Film Festival has always served as a potent indicator of what movies will shape the trajectory of film throughout the year, and in its latest incarnation, the Festival made sure to fulfill these expectations by screening 190 films over the course of its duration. In many ways, the festival is a mecca of sorts to Sydney film lovers. The majority of the films screened rarely see a wide release, if at all, and the festival has begun to act as a yearly antidote to Sydney’s current film scene. To stress the point, the current screening list at Hoyts Broadway consists: of a new Will Smith film, Fast and the Furious 6 (that’s right, 6), The Great Gatsby, Iron Man 3, The Hangover Part 3 and another Brad Pitt film. All of the films are from the core of Hollywood, all of them American-language, and all of them indicative of the issues that Sydney Film Festival serves to combat.
I started my festival experience with a lone birthday viewing of The Land of Hope, a Japanese film revolving around a series of events that parallel the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. Within this context, however, the film serves more as a reflection on a traditional Japanese family with the film’s hyperemotional couple of hours examining the role of the old in Japan, the country’s bloated bureaucratic system, radiophobia, and the intense conformity of the society.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a documentary unlike anything you’ll see. Part journalistic, part philosophical, the work spends its two and a half hours focused on the perpetrators of the Indonesian Killings of 1965 and 1966. Rather than interviewing the survivors of the killings, however, Oppenheimer interviews and studies several of the killers, who remain lauded and accepted within Indonesian society. What results is a documentary that forces the audience to consider their own reality, one that likely supports the lives of the film’s killers and oppresses those of the survivors. When I asked Oppenheimer to reflect on the message of the film, he simply stated “it’s about the way we lie to ourselves.”
Former Sydney University student and artist George Gittoes’ latest film Love City Jalalabad was a simultaneously provoking and enjoyable documentary revolving around starting an artist collective in Afghanistan. It’s odd that a film set in one of the most violent cities in the country is concurrently as fun as it is, yet that’s the trademark of many of Gittoes’ films. Over its course, Gittoes establishes a performing arts community in Afghanistan, takes a travelling circus through its tribal regions, and endlessly brushes with death in a movie which carefully mediates between ‘kind-hearted and comedic’ and ‘powerful and provoking’ in a way few others besides Gittoes could do so well.
Another festival highlight was the remastered copy of Wrong Side of the Road, one of the most influential pieces of Indigenous-focused cinema in the 1980s. I spoke to the directors about the remastering process, with Graeme Isaac explaining the National Film and Sound Archives “literally digitally rebuilt the film frame-by-frame”. Reflecting on their experiences of shooting the film in a significantly different period prompted the filmmakers to acknowledge the progress that has occurred in Indigenous rights – alongside the role that Australian cinema has played in this. The future of Australian cinema, according to Ned Lander, was by all means an Indigenous-centric one, with the opening film of the festival, Mystery Road focusing on an Indigenous detective in a rural Australian town. With Indigenous filmmakers, not simply Indigenous focused-films, beginning to emerge with the Screen: Black initiative of the festival.
Closed Curtain, an Iranian piece from Jafar Panahi (This is Not a Film) was another surprise, offering a puzzling, yet gripping piece of modern absurdism with challenging political implications underlying the film. A River Changes Course consisted of several vignettes focusing on documenting how families living outside of the cities in Cambodia have become increasingly affected by the country’s growing globalisation. Grigris, a film set in Chad, Africa, lay somewhere in between a light-hearted dance film and a stronger comment on life and violence in the country. Mistaken for Strangers, ‘a film about The National’ quickly shifts into an exploration of what it’s like to be “the other brother”. As the lead singer of the group, Matt Berninger invites his younger brother to join the band as a roadie on tour. Upstream Color was one of the strongest picks of the festival – a surreal and vastly unique science fiction tale with a central focus on what makes us human. Alongside a brilliantly composed soundtrack, consistently beautiful cinematography throughout, and an increasingly complex narrative, the film became an easy favourite of the festival.
Whilst the disappointing Only God Forgives took out the festival prize, to the confusion and ire of many, The Act of Killing and Upstream Color are my recommendations to catch when they get a wider release. The Sydney Film Festival has just wrapped up – with one of its most successful years to date – but don’t fear, most of the films from the festival will likely end up in a cinema within the next six months. But don’t go looking for them at Hoyts Broadway; they need the room for the next installment of Fast and Furious.
For more of Honi’s coverage of the Sydney Film Festival see: