Looking back on the Sydney Film Festival

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The Sydney Film Festival (SFF) celebrates its 60th birthday this year. New efforts to celebrate and document the history of one of Sydney’s most important cultural institutions reveal that a significant part of its history is inextricably linked with that of our own university. In a city with extremely limited opportunities for revival screenings of classics and few distribution companies or screens committed to showing many of the cutting edge foreign and independent films, the SFF has become the bastion of preserving film culture in Sydney. All of this from humble and sandstone-clad beginnings.

Inspired by previous models around the world (particularly Edinburgh) and looking to fill the void that was the dearth of quality film screenings in Sydney, a committee was set up to form an inaugural festival. The University of Sydney was known for having made efforts towards the same end for many years. The Sydney University Film Group (now Film Society or ‘FilmSoc’) of which the first SFF director, David Donaldson, was a member, was founded in 1947. There was also a USYD Film Society dedicated to the more technical side of film projection, which had been around far longer, showing ‘talkies’ from as far back as 1929. So a location near the CBD, with appropriate facilities and a mutual interest in promoting the art form made Sydney University a natural choice, and the first SFF in 1954 was a 4 day affair, with screenings held in the Wallace Lecture Theatre, Holme Building, Old Teachers College and in subsequent years, the Quad’s Great Hall. It stayed there until moving to bigger venues in 1967. David Stratton, who was festival director for the better part of two decades has a good anecdote: in a rather pathetic attempt to steal USYD’s thunder, in 1964 UNSW attempted starting a rival film festival – the inaugural UNSW affiliated film festival was also the last.

Looking back at the first SSF the film choices are strikingly relevant; at a stage in the history of cinema where critical attention was placed onto classics of the medium, the first SFF showed retrospective screenings of two great silent films – Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), along with more contemporary films. Notably included were some of the biggest names in world cinema at the time, like Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero and curious gambles that history has since vindicated – the unknown Jour de Fete, the first film of Jacques Tati. These great selections would go on to define the Film Festival. Many of these are now considered classics – as important and varied as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and Haneke’s Funny Games are just a few of the untold numbers of films by major artists that were shown at the time of their release, not to mention recent efforts like Malick’s Tree of Life, Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Haneke’s Amour, which all had their Australian debut last year at SFF.

Of the countless great films sure to grace our screens this year, not much is known as yet – the only ones confirmed at this stage are Stoker, the gothic horror which marks the English language debut for Koren Chan-wook Park (of Oldboy fame/infamy), the curious The Act of Killing about those complicit in the killings of alleged communists by Indonesia’s military regime in the 60s who act out their past in the style of their favourite films, the documentary Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls, about Burma’s first girl pop group and German hit Oh Boy about a down and out slacker whose life changes by a series of random encounters.

Stay posted for more announcements at www.sff.org.au

Honi Soit
Honi Soit is the largest and oldest weekly student newspaper in Australia. Our articles, like this one, are made possible by our dedicated student reporters and contributors.
Honi Soit

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