Film Reviews

Sydney Film Festival 2019: A First Look

Published June 7, 2019
Agnès Varda, celebrated at this year's Sydney Film Festival

It’s time scientists studied the link between major arts events in Sydney and rainfall. All it takes to break the drought is the opening of Sculpture by the Sea, or Vivid, or, last week, the Sydney Film Festival. Admittedly one only gets damp en route to the Film Festival, and can spend the rest of the day drying out in the comfortable coccoon of the State Theatre or another venue.

This year I haven’t had the chance to view enough films to make definitive recommendations, so this column will be more of a subjective preview than a review. The way the program is mapped out allows ample scope for viewers to pursue their special interests or catch an early  glimpse of award-winning movies that will be making their way into local cinemas within the following twelve months.

Every year a dozen films are selected to compete for the prestigious Sydney Film Prize, awarded by a jury to the most “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” entry. Some of the previous winners have filled the bill almost too well, notably Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013), which alienated many viewers with its graphic violence; or Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights (2015), a three-part, arthouse special that ran for more than six hours.

The movie that won last year’s grand prize, The Heiresses by Paraguayan director, Marcelo Martinessi, was a much gentler, more conventional affair, which has only recently been given a theatrical release. It is, by the way, a really excellent film.

The official competition is representative of the Festival’s mission to bring to Australia the broadest range of movies from around the world, including entries from many countries outside the mainstream. This year includes features from Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Macedonia, Colombia, Spain, Germany, South Korea and Israel – although there are so many international co-productions it’s misleading to assign most films to any single country.

The filmmakers range from established stars, such as Pedro Almodóvar, with Pain and Glory, and Bong Joon-Ho, whose Parasite recently took out the Palme d’Or in Cannes. There’s a new movie called Bacurau by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, who won the Sydney Film Prize in 2016 for Acquarius. At the other end of the spectrum lies Judy & Punch, the debut feature by Australian actress-turned-director, Mirrah Foulkes. It sounds like a wild ride.

One I’m looking forward to is God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya by Macedonian director, Teona Strugar Mitevska. It’s the tale of a stubborn, frustrated woman who takes a stand against a community in which sexist attitudes have been enshrined by tradition and religion. When was the last time you saw a movie from Macedonia? Or Colombia? There haven’t been too many screenings at the local Hoyts between superhero films.

The SFF is a reminder of how impoverished mainstream film culture has become, with global box offices being dominated by inane action flicks, sentimental junk and children’s movies. You may argue it was forever thus, but many of the blockbuster movies of the past were the work of directors the French would readily identify as ‘auteurs’ – ie. artists in the medium – whereas today’s big budget productions are assigned to proficient tradesmen prepared to follow instructions and stick to a tried ‘n’ true formula.

One needn’t be a film buff to hunger for a greater range of fare, whether it be the work of established directors, or independent filmmakers. The cinema provides an immediate window onto a country’s self-perceptions, its social problems and sources of vitality. Just think of the riotous energy of Australian cinema in the 1970s when we returned to making films after three decades spent in creative limbo.

The sheer comprehensiveness of the SFF is amazing. As well as new features there are sub-sections devoted to documentaries, shorts, classics, horror, animation, family films, indigenous films, art and music. There are special focuses on new films from New Zealand and from Europe.

As a complement to this year’s opening night presentation – Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach – David Stratton has put together a program featuring works by ten female directors from Australia and New Zealand, including the restored version of Paulette McDonagh’s silent melodrama, The Cheaters (1929), which resurfaced at last year’s Melbourne Film Festival.

This year there is a special focus on Agnès Varda, who died in March at the age of 90. A leading figure in the French New Wave, Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1956) is considered by many to be the film that initiated the movement. Her style was humanistic, highly personal, and almost unclassifiable, blending fiction and documentary in a free-flowing manner. The program includes 11 full-length narratives and four shorts, including her final testament, the cinematic autobiography, Varda by Agnès (2019).

With over 250 films on the menu, many items fit into multiple categories. Jim Jarmusch’s much-anticipated zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die, may be a horror movie, but it’s classed as a ‘Special Presentation’ in the program. The documentary Capital in the 21st Century is part of the ‘Focus on New Zealand’, but is really a film for the entire planet. A fast-moving economic history lesson, based on Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book of the same name, Justin Pemberton’s doco is essential viewing for anyone who sees the cinema not as an escape from the workaday world on a rainy day, but as a tool that helps us understand the strange days in which we live.



Sydney Film Festival 2019

5-16 June, 2019


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 June, 2019