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Sydney Fest, deeper into an ocean of film

The vibrancy of a film festival can be measured by a willingness to juxtapose films that confound thematic linkage, offering surprises and revelations in an ocean of film from around the world: this year’s program, Lynden Barber’s second as Artistic Director, suggests he is more interested in challenging us than placating us. He wants us to ‘go deeper’. Andrew L. Urban previews the 53rd Sydney Film Festival (June 9 – 25, 2006).

With over 120 feature length films and more than 60 shorts (all eligible for the Urban Cinefile Audience Awards in one of six categories), festival patrons face many dilemmas – the curse of choice. But the upside is that this program connects to the current that flows through today’s cinema. For example, United 93 screens shortly after its Cannes debut, a sobering and intense dramatisation of the infamous fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001, by Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker seasoned in gritty material (terrorism in Northern Ireland in Bloody Sunday and Omagh, racial violence in The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and one soldier’s abandonment in Resurrected). With United 93, he makes the complexities accessible, the reconstruction meaningful and the humanity deeply moving. The fact that it’s an English production and Greengrass is a Brit may well help ….

Also hot on the heels of its Cannes premiere is the global warming doco An Inconvenient Truth, featuring almost-President Al Gore, whose sophisticated, well researched and entertaining slide show on the subject – which is the basis for this film - is a convincing exercise in joining the dots, demolishing any notion that humans are not contributing to the natural phenomenon. Alarming, as it should be. Gore would have easily won the Presidency had he presented himself in such fashion during the race.

Away from the troubles of this world, and picked up from Cannes 2005 (Directors’ Fortnight), the award winning La Moustache, is a wonderful and slightly surreal comedy by Emmanuel Carrere about a man who is driven to the ends of the earth (almost) after his wife fails to notice he’s shaved off his moustache. He never had one, she maintains, as do their friends. Vincent Lindon is superb, as is Emmanuelle Devos as his wife. It’s a gem to be discovered.

Likewise harvested from last year’s Directors’ Fortnight, The President’s Last Bang, a South Korean political crime drama that is black, bleak and based on fact, from Im Sang-Soo.

"We want to encourage our audiences to ... find gems they otherwise might never see"

Artistic Director Lynden Barber says “We want to encourage our audiences to go deeper into film and find gems they otherwise might never see. To watch films that go beyond the headlines and show the world in all its complexity”.

And the bar is set pretty high from the start, with Ten Canoes, the Opening Night choice, something of a coup and just two weeks after its debut at Cannes (Un Certain Regard). As a bonus, the making of the film is documented in The Balanda and The Bark Canoes, for screening the next day (June 10). It’s hard to categorise, but may be called an indigenous period comedy and morality tale, set in ancient northern Australia. It tells of a young man who covets his older brother’s youngest wife and is warned off by a story of a similar incident in the mythical past that led to much trouble, told to him by his brother during the days spent making bark canoes and gathering goose eggs in the swamp.

Directed by Rolf de Heer and co-directed by Peter Djigirr, and with the multi-skilled co-operation of the people of Ramingining, the film is surprisingly funny. The humour is character driven (but also woven into David Gulpilil’s narration), situation reliant and recognisably universal. The humanity of the characters is so immediate and recognisable, that the only reason to accept its period setting(s) is the accoutrements like tools, dress, shelter and behaviour.

"world premieres and edgy works that may not be available commercially"

Ten Canoes is only one of several Australian films in the program, including world premieres and edgy works that may not be available commercially. In Kanyini, respected Aboriginal elder “Uncle” Bob Randall tells his story and that of the Indigenous community’s struggle to adapt to the modern world.

Solo, the first film under Project Greenlight Australia with funding from Movie Network Channels will be presented as a Gala Event. Other Gala Events include The Bet from Sydney based first-time director Mark Lee, Unfolding Florence, an inventive tribute to late Sydney designer and identity Florence Broadhurst by Gillian Armstrong and Andrew Denton’s God On My Side, recording the events at the annual meeting for America’s televangelists.

Other films in Australian Made include The Archive Project, John Hughes’ fascinating documentary, George Gittoes’ uplifting and vibrant documentary, Rampage, as well as The Last Valley a smartly constructed documentary about the conflict between environmentalists and rainforest loggers in East Gippsland; Footy Chicks, a candid documentary about the highly sexualised culture surrounding football codes in Australia; Call Me Mum, an emotional drama from director Margot Nash, 900 Neighbours about one of Sydney’s most notorious buildings; and a moving and powerful documentary Mohammad Hossain’s Intensive Care filmed at Liverpool Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.

And in the Indie Screen section, two more Australian films: Michael Frank’s low budget drama, Ra Choi, set among the hungry and homeless kids in the Vietnamese community in Sydney’s Cabramatta; and Burke and Wills (not about the explorers) by newcomer filmmakers Matt Zeremes and Oliver Torr, who will introduce the film and take questions afterwards. The film had its world premiere earlier this year at Tribeca.

To celebrate its 10th year Anniversary, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s seminal documentary about Leichhardt Council, Rats In The Ranks will screen as well as Bob Connolly Presents: A Career In Film in which Bob Connolly will discuss the films that have influenced his career.

But to heed Barber’s call to go deeper, and perhaps to go wider, it’s worth looking at the Latin Horizons segment, which shows nine of the latest wave of films from this emerging cinematic giant. Teen Mothers from Brazil, for example, documents a year in the life of four pregnant teens; Sandra Werneck’s riveting glimpse into reality in Rio.

Another Latin female director, Alicia Scherson delivers Play (Chile/Argentina), a playful and unique film that won the Best New Narrative Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. And Brazil’s acclaimed Andrucha Waddington (Me, You, Them) is represented with his visually sumptuous and award winning epic spanning six decades, The House of Sand.

The Middle East, North Africa and Denmark are also brought home, the latter including The Pusher Trilogy from Nicolas Winding Refn, which will screen at the George Street cinemas (which was introduced last year to broaden the festival’s geographical and symbolic reach). The three crime thrillers interlock, but can be watched in any order or singly.

The underworld is also the subject of the Jean-Paul Melville retrospective; among the great French director’s films to be included are Les Enfants Terribles, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge.

"Before, between and after screenings..."

Before, between and after screenings, there are Filmspeak Forums, live music and the Stella Bar to enjoy, at the World Movies Festival Lounge (12 noon till midnight daily), downstairs adjacent to the State Theatre.

Behind the scenes, the Festival has a refreshed Board, new General Manager and new Marketing Manager, a Sponsorship Co-ordinator and newly appointed publicist. Festival President Jacqui Feeney (CEO of World Movies Channel operator Pan TV) says the rebirthing of the Festival is generating a terrific buzz, both within the organisation and through its associates, from the State Theatre, its traditional home, through to the designers, staff and supporters.

Andrew L. Urban
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