Spotlight on the Sydney Film Festival: mapping the highlights and lowlights

June is the merry month of the Sydney Film Festival and I luckily managed to enjoy some illuminating films again this year. This is always a worthwhile festival with great breadth and depth. The artistic director Nashen Moodle and his team produced a robust, diverse 2017 programme.

It’s a shame I could only manage to be there for a week and not for the full festival. Maybe next year I will walk in, head high, with my full-on festival lanyard around my neck, broadcasting to the world that I am one of the chosen. Beware all who try to snaffle my designated seat! But no, that is not my film festival style…

Getting this off my chest

The glowering, muttering and downright rudeness of the  Lanyardians at this festival is gobsmacking to behold and experience. Not only inside the cinema but in the queues outside, the lanyard-bedecked privileged class assert their entitled superiority by glaring, pushing, shoving, spreading their clothes and food over many seats, treating random others as intruders… While I realise that many of these people have been coming to SFF year in, year out since the dawn of film time, I find their lack of basic courtesy quite extraordinary. I figured I had probably spent more money on my tickets, when you add in my airfares etc., but still I am treated here as a lower form of life by the ‘in crowd’. Funnily enough my friends and I haven’t noticed the same proprietorial snobbishness when we go down to Melbourne for MIFF.  People there chat to you in queues and even can be warm and helpful. After all, we all do share a love of film.

Anyway it is good to get my Lanyardian-aversion off my chest. The Grand Master and I are plotting to make our own special VIP lanyards next year, in order to befuddle and upstage them all.

On with the show

As usual,  I head off in my warmest layers of winter clothes with my old friends who are also intrepid film buffs, particularly the aforementioned Grand Master who has been attending this festival for decades, long before it existed in its current form. Here is an extract from his famous spreadsheet dedicated to documenting at least 5 people’s filmgoing this year:

Part of the Grand Master’s SFF
spread sheet, an annual gift to all involved.

The first film we saw was the complex, demanding Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara.

The unsettling Una

It was good to see the irrepressible, talented Ben in person on stage before the screening.  Who can forget him in The Year My Voice Broke and Animal Kingdom? This film about a girl who suffered abuse as a child is rich in nuance, and could disturb audiences, especially when the abuser, played by Ben, comes across at times as quite sympathetic. In conversation with others afterwards, the different, even visceral reactions to the film were very thought-provoking.

The next day we saw Hotel Salvation, an Indian film about family and mortality that was heartwarming and pleasant enough, a pretty good first film by the young bubbly filmmaker.

The second screening that day was much more memorable – the Georgian film House of Others. Set in the Nineties just after the Georgian civil war, the film’s haunting, powerful images and spare narrative style were reminiscent of the works of Ingmar Bergman and even Andrei Tarkovsky.

In the Q & A afterwards, the young woman director Rusudan Glurjidze spoke about her fascinating award-winning debut film with warmth and insight. The Russian producer also contributed well to the conversation, with some astute observations.  This was a perfect festival film which also broadened our education. We had to dash home later to do a background check on the history of Georgia.

The next morning we headed into the State Theatre again with high hopes for the latest Michael Haneke /Isabelle Huppert film, Happy End, knowing that this would most probably not be a happy film.

A not so happy end.

I used to teach Haneke’s films at Uni back in the day – in particular the brilliant Hidden. His more recent masterpieces are The White Ribbon and Amour. The unease of the first few minutes of Hidden was recaptured in Happy End, and I knew we were in for a bumpy ride. The latter was not helped by the frustrating seating arrangements at the State Theatre, where it is often difficult to see the film properly in the stalls because of big heads in front. From what I managed to see, Happy End was an unrelenting journey into family dysfunction and psychopathology, set among the charmless white bourgeoisie in Calais attempting to avoid family scandal, while racial and class issues inevitably close in around them. The audience was laughing at the end, though it certainly wasn’t a happy one. I immediately wanted to see the film again, which is always a good sign.

I moved up to the Mezzanine seats for the next film, Warwick Thornton’s playful yet quite scathing documentary We Don’t Need a Map, a film which had also been chosen for the opening night gala screening.  This was a creative, thoughtful film focusing on the historical and cultural meanings of the Southern Cross, white invasion and indigenous identity. Again, it was great to hear this talented filmmaker talk at the beginning of his film.

The State Theatre – quirky and downright uncomfortable

In the Mezzanine there is a pretty good view of the screen – much better than the dress circle, which is too far away, especially as the screen is awkwardly situated at the rear of the stage. The State Theatre, stately and grand though it is,  was never designed to be a cinema. Also the rows of seats are too close together and my legs always ached by the end of each film when I was allocated a Mezzanine seat. Therefore none of the areas in this theatre is an easy, relaxing place to be.  As the Grand Master says, for instance, it is not at all good to be in the stalls looking straight at the blackheads on some bloke’s greasy neck in front of you, and missing the screen altogether. The other cinemas screening festival films, such as the Dendy Opera House and the Events cinema in George Street are pretty normal and comfortable.

View from the mezzanine floor at the State Theatre

The next film that I saw – or tried to see – in the State Theatre was the outstanding, profoundly moving documentary about the writer and activist James Baldwin,  I Am Not Your Negro, using Baldwin’s own poetic words.

A stunning experience

The producer Hebert Peck was there to introduce this award-winning film directed by his brother Raoul Peck,  and to answer questions in the Q & A session afterwards  This extraordinary film was the only film I attended that received a spontaneous standing ovation by the packed crowd of cinema goers. I Am Not Your Negro is being screened at the Queensland Film Festival in July – I urge everyone in Brisbane to try to get along to the New Farm Cinema to see it.

Leaving the Best Features until Last

The final two feature films I enjoyed at SFF were by two very different women filmmakers. The distinguished UK filmmaker Sally Potter wrote and directed the wonderfully dark, witty film The Party.

The superb film The Party

This film was beautifully written, acted and directed, with a sterling cast of great actors who were a joy to watch in action as a night of celebration unravelled spectacularly. The cast included Kristen Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall,  Cillian Murphy, Bruno Ganz and others. What a gold star experience this film was.

This next film was On Body and Soul, a riveting screen experience from Hungary by writer/ director Ildiko  Enyedi.

The extraordinary prize-winner

Her amazingly beautiful love story not only won the Berlinale Golden Bear this year, but also the Sydney Film Prize for ‘audacious, cutting-edge and courageous’ filmmaking. The film is about two lonely, damaged people working in an abattoir in Budapest, who discover by accident that they have the same haunting dreams every night. While I did not manage to see all 12 films considered in competition for the Sydney prize, I was very pleased that this original film won the award. Again, there was another excellent Q & A with the director after the screening.

Last night woes and a brighter future

I did mean to attend the documentary by Kriv Stenders on the Brisbane band The Go-Betweens on my final night in Sydney, but sadly that was not meant to be. This was because of a couple of other dramas in the real world e.g. a stolen credit card, and broken sleep caused by a hotel evacuation at 1.30 am. Anyway,  I was there in spirit. Funnily enough, at the airport the next day I caught up with an old mate who had been in the Go-Betweens band, and he told me that the film had been very well received the night before, which is great. Maybe this one will screen at the newly revived BIFF (Brisbane International Film Festival) in August/September. Along with many other fans of the old BIFF, I am looking forward very much to seeing what will be on offer then. I might even get a lanyard…