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…







A counter at the Regal in Brisbane. This cinema was showing Human Capital and Winter Sleep before Xmas..

A counter at the retro Regal in Brisbane. This little cinema was showing both Human Capital and Winter Sleep before Xmas..two amazing films from my Top Ten. They also screened the luminous Ida earlier this year.

This is the special Silver Screen episode, an appropriate way for me to end the year. In the past month, I haven’t been able to avoid perusing other people’s seemingly authoritative lists of the ‘best films of the year’/ ‘worst films of the year’. While these lists can become rather tedious and even pretentious, I am still curious enough to check them out.   I certainly don’t always agree – but that is half the fun. I should also keep lists of all those tasty-sounding films that I haven’t yet seen and wish to check out in the new year when I get a chance. As with book reviews, I  know I should keep notes, but I am rather haphazard in my personal must read/must view list-making ventures. However I have managed to list some such films for the record in this blog.

Cinema is Dead…Long Live Cinema!

Strangely enough, I work with some people who seem to be quite pleased that cinema is doomed and in decline – at least that is their viewpoint, which I do not share. I neither see nor experience their fatalistic version of death and diminishment when I go to the cinema, nor when I attend festivals, nor when I read about the multitude of world film festivals, the making of independent films, studio films, transnational co-productions, blockbusters, art house films, genre films, documentaries…and watch achingly exquisite feature films from unfamiliar places and cultures, such as Corn Island (at BAPFF this year). Of course there have been great advances in technology this century, and one can view and interact with moving images on multiple platforms. But cinema is continually reinventing itself and filmmakers still want to make that special feature film or documentary for the big screen.

Please don’t talk to your friend or check/answer your mobile phone anywhere near me..!

Hopefully North Korean hackers (or two boys from Idaho?) won’t shut down the cinema exhibition experience. Regarding the irritation of being near inconsiderate people (talking to friend, checking mobile phone constantly..) in the cinema, I have become more restrained with my ‘shushing’ lately, since a person was murdered in the US in the middle of an altercation.  The ‘shusher’ or the ‘sushee’ just might have murder on her/his mind! See this link…

The Q & A after Winter Sleep screening at BAPFF with producer Zehnep Atakan.

The Q & A after the Winter Sleep gala screening at BAPFF with the talented dynamic producer Zehnep Atakan.

My top films: more or less in order (very difficult to rank)

On a more peaceful note, my top 5 feature films seen this year are as follows: the towering Winter Sleep, the throbbingly beautiful Ida, no frame spared; the wondrous genre surprise of the year Under the Skin; the superb craftsmanship of Boyhood; the exciting, flawless, soaring Birdman. 

At the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, I saw the famous Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s multi-award-winning film Winter Sleep, which makes it to top of my top 5 of the year, though in a way all five are first. I loved Ceylan’s last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I personally think was more sweeping, more layered and more profound than Winter Sleep, although I don’t want to split hairs over these two undoubted masterpieces

The next 10 viewed in 2014: Human Capital; The Drop; Her; Black Coal, Thin Ice; Blue is the Warmest Colour; Stranger by the Lake; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Gloria; The Dallas Buyers’ Club; Tattoo (this is a very powerful, stylish German film from 2002, by director Robert Schwentke, which screened at the German Film Festival this year).

At Graceville Regal in Brisbane - thank the film gods that this cinema will show superior international films

At Graceville Regal in Brisbane – thanks to the film gods that this cinema shows superior international films in its lineup

Other favourites from film festivals this year

I attended several festivals such as MIFF (Melbourne), BAPFF (Brisbane) and IFFA (Iranian festival). Many films screened there have lingered, long after viewing them. For example, the curious yet very engaging Icelandic film Of Horses and Men; Corn Island – the beautiful Georgian/German/French/Czech/Kazakstani/Hungarian film of haunting long silences and powerful visuals; Hope, a visceral, gut-wrenching French film made in northern Africa about desperate refugees trying to cross the Sahara safely, dreaming of a new life in Europe; the revealing Iranian film I’m Not Angry, which had a knock-out performance by the leading actor – Bella and I are still haunted and disturbed by the ending of this film; the impressive Iranian film Snow which depicted a once respectable middle-class family, slowly but surely disintegrating at every level of their existence.   

There are of course a number of superior feature films I have missed but which I want to see very soon, if possible – Two Days One Night; Locke; Whiplash; Force Majeure; Mommy; Tom at the Farm; Leviathan

Top documentary films this year:  

With Gil Scrine, Sean Maher and Danny… at the Cinema Ventures special screening of Gore Vidal: the United States of Amnesia

With Gil Scrine, Sean Maher and the director Nicholas Wrathall… at the Cinema Ventures special screening of Gore Vidal: the United States of Amnesia

The best doco for me in 2014 was Sacro Gra, Winner, Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival. This film was the first documentary ever to win this much-sought-after prize. I saw this extraordinary production at the Italian Film Festival. A close second was Gore Vidal – the United States of Amnesia – a wonderfully probing portrait of an intriguing, charismatic writer and towering public intellectual. Then there was 20,000 Days on Earth, the earthy, revealing, riveting  film about Nick Cave;  and Regarding Susan Sontag. While this film may not have given the whole picture of this fascinating multilayered woman, another towering public intellectual of her time, it was absorbing and well worth seeing, in order to work out the placement of more of the jigsaw puzzle pieces of her fascinating, complicated personality and life history. Another doco treat was The Search for Weng Weng; this very entertaining film chronicles an amazing journey by local Brisbane filmmaker Andrew Leavold to find an unlikely star of Filipino cinema. Finally I rate Trespassing Bergman, in which a number of eminent filmmakers such as Michael Haneke and Claire Denis make a respectful pilgrimage to Ingmar Bergman’s home on his remote island, while others discuss the ways Bergman exploded their minds and influenced their own filmic creativity. Along with some great archival footage, this is just my kind of special film festival treat! Thanks MIFF.

Another superior doco to see asap: The Salt of the Earth 

Top Oz films seen this year:

Predestination; My Mistress; Felony 

Other Oz films to see as soon as I can: The Babadook; 52 Tuesdays; Tracks; Charlie’s Country

Most underrated Australian film of the year: My Mistress. Many others agree with me about this great first feature by Stephen Lance. Margaret and David were very petty and inexplicably erratic in relation to this Queensland film.

A right royal regal cinema

Once again I return to the Regal at Graceville (another poor pic below, but you get the idea). I am definitely thankful for such not-so-small mercies here in Brisbane. While Palace Centro and the Barracks, along with the Dendy, are programming more and more mainstream, ‘safe’ films in their standard lineups,  the steadfast, dare I say visionary, Regal manager takes on some stunning international films that would otherwise not be released here in Brisbane, except at festivals, if we are lucky.

While it is great that the Palace cinema chain does have a series of festivals featuring different nations’ films through the year (e.g. French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, British etc), often it is not possible to attend a particular screening, and many a great film can slip away. If there is no commercial release it is a struggle to catch that film at a later date. I will never forget the words of one Director of the (then) Australian Film Institute – she said rather rudely, over a few drinks – “Helen, if you want rotary clothes hoists, stay in Brisbane; if you want to see films, move to Sydney or Melbourne.”  I do go to Sydney and Melbourne film festivals whenever I can, but since those doomsday words, I have, along with other devotees, tried to do my bit to actively improve film culture in Brisbane – not an easy task over the years, but often very satisfying. Long live Cinema…!


Inside Cinema 1 at the Regal. Sadly 2 women near me chatted to each other throughout Human Capital, despite my shushing them and turning around etc…I despair of such people who think they are still at home watching the film in the lounge room.

Inside Cinema 1 at the Regal. Sadly 2 women near me chatted to each other throughout Human Capital, despite my shushing them and turning around etc…I despair of such ignorant, inconsiderate people who think they are still at home watching the film in the lounge room.