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Discoveries from the Sydney film festival

Discoveries at this year’s Sydney Film Festival included the Urban Cinefile Audience Award winning low budget Australian drama, Blacktown and as a window on world cinema, the program boasted the likes of the award winning drama Brothers (Denmark) and the animated short Journey to Mars (Argentina), plus Kontroll (Hungary), Moolaade (Senegal), Life Is A Miracle (Serbia) and Howl’s Moving Castle (Japan, Closing Night Film). But there was still more to the festival, including a slew of strong American docos - and the winners of the Dendy Awards for Australian Shorts, as Andrew L. Urban reports.

If one function of a film festival is to let audiences discover new works, and another to celebrate world cinema, the 52nd Sydney Film Festival has delivered. Audiences continued to grow. Sell out sessions increased from 34 in 2004 to 42 in 2005, spread across The State Theatre (5), Dendy Opera Quays (20), George Street Cinemas (14) and The Studio at the Sydney Opera House (3). While final figures are not yet in, total attendance is up on 2004. New ticketing arrangements proved popular with the 30-voucher flexi-pass doubling the sales target.

Film journalist-turned-Artistic Director Lynden Barber made his film festival bones this year with a program of 170 films from 40 countries playing in four venues to apparently appreciative audiences. “The response has been better than in my wildest hopes,” he said while enjoying a late brunch with his wife Kay at Redfern’s The First Drop, on Sunday after the Closing Night. “Kay has just asked me the same thing – and I feel great, on a bit of a high actually. A bit tired, but really delighted. I was expecting some negative responses but it’s been very positive - I had patrons I hadn’t met coming up to me in the lobby of the State saying how much they were enjoying the program.”

Characterised by a strong documentary stream that included Inside Deep Throat, Murderball, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Based on a True Story, I Am A Sex Addict and the mad hot audience favourite, Mad Hot Ballroom,* the festival discovered some well received new Australian films, ranging from low budget gems like Kriv Stenders’ much talked about Blacktown and Aaron Catling’s Mosaic, to the slightly higher budget debut from Anna Reeves, Oyster Farmer.
(*Mad Hot Ballroom won the Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Documentary in both the World Cinema section [State theatre screenings] and the Sidebar Programs [Dendy Opera Quays screening]. For a full report and all the winners of the Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, see HERE.)

“I was thrilled especially by the audience response to some films, like Kriv Stenders’ Blacktown, a low budget film that won the Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Feature in the Sidebar Program. People responded with warmth and enthusiasm… and Brothers, the film that won the same award in the World Cinema section…. Neither film has Australian distribution, but I hope these awards will help them find otulets so Australians can get to see both of them.”

Festival Board President Cathy Robinson is quick to add praise for Barber’s work: “Lynden found his voice and his feet and did a great job. And it’s a tough job. And despite it being logistically rather difficult, with some new people on the team who were having their first time, and despite it being exhausting, I feel it’s been busy, warm, engaging, successful – it felt like a Sydney event, with people enjoying the opportunity to see the films and talk about them.”

Of course, Barber had the whole world to select from, and he slotted thrillers from Hungary (Kontroll, described by Variety’s Eddie Cockrell as a mix of “a Bruce Willis movie with a European arthouse film”) and France (36 Quay des Orfevres); the powerful ‘family ties’ drama from Denmark’s Susanne Bier (Brothers); a Hong Kong collection of four films; and a tribute to 25 years of CAAMA, Australian Aboriginal filmmaking, as well as a collection of indies, New Asian Cienma – and digital works, including a sub-section devoted to Australian digital shorts.

Rock Flicks (curated by Al Clark) took the seminal films from 1956 to 1996 for a spin, and Filmspeak at the festival Club offered a range of eight sessions, from ‘Aussie films v Globowood’ to a session with Howl’s Moving Castle producer, Toshio Suzuki. Four sessions at the Opera House Studio ramnged from An Evening with Lisa Gerrard to the exploration of the digital effects created by Sydney’s Animal Logic for The House of Flying Daggers.

Even the Art Gallery of NSW got into the festival act, with several screenings, including sessions introduced by cinematographers who had picked films to discuss from their professional viewpoint (eg Michael Mann’s Collateral, discussed by Don McAlpine).

Guests came from all over the globe, including Argentinian filmmaker Carlos Sorin, director of Bombon El Perron, America’s Fenton Bailey, co-director of Inside Deep Throat, Amma Asante, director and Charlie Hanson producer of A Way of Life from England, cinematographers Andrew Lesnie and Don McAlpine, Lola, producer of Two Great Sheep, Koo Ja-hong director of The Wolf Returns, Aaron Catling director of Mosaic, Gulen Guler, producer of 2 Girls, Richard Hawkins, director of Everything, the cast of The Magician, actors Jack Thompson, Sacha Horler and Chris Haywood, filmmaker David Bradbury, composers Iva Davies, Richard Tognetti and Martin Armiger, Anthony Buckley producer and Anna Reeves director of Oyster Farmer, Kriv Stenders, director of Blacktown, Baheej Adada, director of Silma’s School, Rock Flicks curator Al Clark, Toshio Suzuki, producer Howl’s Moving Castle, Jane Campion, Vuk Kostic, star of Life Is A Miracle and Sundance programmer Chief Bird Runningwater.

This is but a fragmentary sampling of the program, which continues to be centred on the Contemporary World Cinema section, screened at the majestic 2,000 seat State Theatre. For all its grandeur, the State still has a rather basic house PA system that makes speeches and presentation sound like a function at a poor suburban bowling club, but the ambiance makes us forgive.

The addition of cinemas 4 and 5 at the George Street complex widened the festival’s physical reach, but it also served to underline its accessibility in a venue familiar to mainstream audiences, who may feel a trifle intimadted by the State, both for its grandeur and for its seething crowds of cineastes. The social centre of the festival is the Festival Club, made possible by the support of the World Movies Channel (for whom I am Channel Host); the laid back ambiance and the proximity to the State (adjacent) make this a highly practical as well as attractive bar at which to deconstruct the festival program.

The Dendy Opera Quays, always an attractive venue amidst the cosmopolitan buzz of Circular Quay, continues to offer a sidebar venue with not only class but the right ambiance for festival films.

And the Dendy group’s long involvement support of the festival continues this year, with the annual Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films, in which the acclaimed CAAM short, Green Buish won the prestigious Rouben Mamoulian Award as well as the Award for Best Fiction over 15 minutes.

Presented by Showtime
Green Bush Directed by Warwick Thornton. Produced by Kath Shelper for CAAMA Productions. 27mins.
(A panel of the festival’s guests selected one film from the 17 finalists is awarded The 2005 Rouben Mamoulian Award.)

Sponsored by Dendy Cinemas and Dendy Films
The Men Who Would Conquer China Directed by Nick Torrens and Jane St Vincent Welch. Produced, written and photographed by Nick Torrens for Nick Torrens Film Productions Pty Ltd. 58mins.

Sponsored by Dendy Cinemas and Dendy Films
62 Sleeps Directed, written and edited by Erin White. Produced by Dane Carson for the VCA School of Film and Television. 11:27mins.

Sponsored by Dendy Cinemas and Dendy Films
Green Bush Directed by Warwick Thornton. Produced by Kath Shelper for CAAMA Productions. 27mins.

Sponsored by Dendy Cinemas and Dendy Films
The First Thing I Remember Directed and written by Tamara Meem. Produced by Matt Carter for AFTRS. 8:09mins.

Sponsored by the Community Relations Commission For a multicultural NSW
Jewboy Written and directed by Tony Krawitz. Produced by Liz Watts and Libby Sharpe for Porchlight Films. 52mins.

Sponsored by Yoram Gross EM.TV
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations Of Jasper Morello Directed by Anthony Lucas. Produced by Julia Lucas, Susie Campbell and Anthony Lucas for 3d Films. 26mins.

The winner of the 2005 FIPRESCI Award, Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare is “a 21st-century exploration of the heart of darkness that manages to balance urgent subject matter with artful form," commented the FIPRESCI judges - Peter Keough, Nick Prescott and Necati Sonmez. “The 18 documentaries in consideration all had measures of fascination and excellence; our three-person jury had the pleasant and challenging task of selecting just one for the International Film Critics' Society (FIPRESCI) Award.”

Published June 30, 2005


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