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The Sydney Film Festival wrapped

The Sydney Film Festival wrapped up a memorable two weeks of international and Australian films this weekend with the presentation of the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Film, the Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, as well as the FIPRESCI Award for Best Documentary. The awards were followed by the slick closing night film Thanks for Not Smoking, starring Aaron Eckhart as spin doctor Nick Naylor who works for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. Spiked with black humour (Nick dines every week with the “Merchants of Death” – the MOD Squad, fellow alcohol and firearms lobbyists) debut director Jason Reitman’s satire targets lobbying, rather than tobacco itself.

The Dendy Awards, which have been an integral part of the festival since 1970, attracted a record 350 entries this year. The judges, including Australian actor and director Rachel Ward and award-winning French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou, had the hard task of choosing from 17 finalist films for the 6 categories, which each carry a $3,000 cash prize.

Documentary Girl in a Mirror (director Kathy Drayton, producer Helen Bowden) about the turbulent and passionate life of 1970s photographer Carol Jerrems won both the Rouben Mamoulian Award and the Documentary Category. Looking Back (director Mark Tsukasov), a surreal look at childhood memories, won the Experimental Category. Stranded (director Stuart McDonald), an often hilarious story of a young girl moving on from the death of her mother, won the Long Form Short Category. The extraordinary The Eye Inside (director Cordelia Beresford), based on real events in Paris in the 1880s that saw a young a girl confined to an asylum after showing signs of hysteria, won the Short Form Short Category. The Safe House (director Lee Whitmore), a colourful recreation of the director’s brush with the Cold War Petrov Affair during her childhood in 1950s Australia, took out the Yoram Gross Animation Award.

Switch on the Night (director Alejandra Canales), a poetic documentary exploring the lives of seven refugee children in Australia, won the Community Relations Commission (CRC) Award for a Multicultural NSW. Of the seven children interviewed, some express themselves eloquently, others still struggle with English, yet all have a maturity far beyond their years, as they describe fleeing their own countries due to dangerous, often life-threatening circumstances and their long journeys by boat, for the most part without adequate food or water. While the children are most likely aware of how extraordinary their stories are, they narrate them as if they are simply recounting events at the school swimming carnival, which makes it even more heart-breaking. The children are asked what freedom means to them, a poignant question considering that each of them were upon arrival kept in immigrant detention centres such as Villawood and Baxter, the majority for at least a few months (the longest a child has been detained in an Australian immigration detention centre is five years, five months and 20 days). There they witnessed desperation manifesting itself in illness, depression, suicide attempts as well as major events like violent protests and hunger strikes (whereby detainees sewed their lips together in protest).

The prestigious FIPRESCI Award for Best Documentary was presented to Favela Rising (directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary). The story follows Rio drug trafficker Anderson Sa who rejected the violence he saw all around him by forming Afro Reggae, a band-cum-social movement playing a vibrant mix of samba, rock and hip-hop and inspiring youth to choose a life other than working for drug lords.

The Urban Cinefile Audience Awards comprise two Festival streams – World Cinema (films screening at the luxuriant State Theatre) and the Sidebar Program (films screening at Dendy Opera Quays and George Street Cinemas).

Of World Cinema, Best Feature went to US sparkling gem Little Miss Sunshine (directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and Best Short to Daddy’s Little Helper (director Daniel Wilson). Best Documentary went to An Inconvenient Truth (director Davis Guggenheim), the alarming yet thoroughly absorbing documentary on Al Gore’s one-man campaign to bring the shocking facts of global warming to the public in the best way he knows how, through lecturing widely, “one city at a time, one person at a time”. After nearly losing his six-year-old son in 1989 in a car accident, Gore realised the way in which people – and things, like the environment – could easily be lost if taken for granted. At the end of the film the filmmakers offer tips that viewers could they themselves follow to improve the environment.

Of the Sidebar Program, Best Feature went to Hong Kong martial arts film Fearless (director Ronny Yu), Best Documentary to Australian The Balanda and The Bark Canoes (directors Molly Reynolds, Tania Nehme, Rolf de Heer), the “making of” opening night film Ten Canoes, while Best Short went to No Umbrella – Election Day in the City (director Laura Paglin).

As always diversity of theme and subject matter were key ingredients for the success of the film festival, with Retrospective screenings of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish and dark cinema, as well as special tastes of Australian, Danish, and Latin cinema. There was a strong program of films from the Middle East and North Africa. Waiting (director Rashid Masharawi) uses the film’s protagonist, theatre director Ahmed who auditions actors in refugee camps by asking them to act out “waiting” in front of a video camera, to convey the metaphor of waiting as the situation of the Palestinian people. October 17, 1961 (director Alain Tasma) recreates a wartime Paris, a Paris that was removed from the actual events of the Algerian War, but that was nonetheless caught in the crossfire as horrific police abductions and murders of North African immigrants (including hangings in woods and drownings in the river) that were effectively covered by “wartime immunity”, led to retaliatory firebombing of gendarmeries and assassinations of police officers.

And where else would you be able to see Into Great Silence (director Philip Groening), a film about the silent and reclusive Carthusian Order in France, monks having sacrificed their worldly possessions for the daily pleasures of prayer, eating, gardening, cooking, filmed with lingering exquisiteness, and afterwards see a film about Friends With Money, directed by Nicole Holofcener (the film should really be called Friends With A Lot of Money)? Only at an entertaining and challenging film festival like the Sydney Film Festival which ran from 9 June to 25 June 2006.

Sarina Talip

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