Sydney Film Festival 2017: A Preview

June 1, 2017
Sydney Film Festival 2017: cinema planet
Sydney Film Festival 2017: cinema planet

As the arrival of winter drives people indoors the organisers of the Sydney Film Festival will be hoping they seek out the warm embrace of the State Theatre or another venue, from the Dendy Newtown to the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne. Is there any better way of spending a fortnight than sitting in a darkened cinema watching five films a day? It’s got to be more fun than lying on a beach destroying skin cells. Or going to work.

I’d happily settle down at the State if only I had the time. Instead, my experience of this year’s Festival will be mainly on a laptop, as I’ll be overseas for the duration. As a consequence this preview is limited to whatever the distributors are prepared to provide as a confidential link. Nowadays the level of paranoia is such that many items are not available even to reviewers.

Within a period of 12 days the Festival will screen 288 films of every description. Aside from the features competing for the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize, the bill comprises the usual range of documentaries, children’s films, horror movies and classics. These often attract bigger audiences than the competition films.

It’s worth noting that among the first sessions to sell out this year were four devoted to the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, the subject of a 10-film retrospective put together by David Stratton. There are no more seats for Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha and Ran, which says something about the Festival audience. Any true cinemaphile will have seen these movies already, and they are all available on DVD.

The attraction, one assumes, is to see Kurosawa on the big screen. Perhaps there’s a new generation of buffs eager to make his acquaintance. Kurosawa was an auteur in the sense in which the French New Wave critics used the word: a director who put his individual stamp upon every work. It’s a concept with less relevance today, when mainstream cinema is dominated by formulaic, big-budget superhero flicks and endless sequels.

Such films tend to be studio productions helmed by directors who have spent their careers making television shows or video clips. The studios don’t want a visionary, they want a tradesman who will follow instructions and let the CGI technicians provide the thrills.

No wonder film-lovers are driven back to the classics, or to films based on ideas, social or political themes that rarely make it to Hoyts or Greater Union.

Another movie that sold out almost at once, is The Young Karl Marx by Haitian director, Raoul Peck (also represented by his documentary about writer, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro). Although the title made me think of Mel Brooks, The Young Karl Marx is a lively, non-stop seminar, as Marx and his wealthy mate, Friedrich Engels, debate the ravages of capitalism and the plight of the working classes.

This may seem horribly dated in a world in which capital has triumphed so decisively over communism, but the victory has also created a hunger for alternatives, a nostalgia for radical thinking and action. It’s not coincidental that another sold-out screening is Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a documentary portrait of urban activist, Jane Jacobs, who fought to preserve the historic neighbourhoods of New York from the vandalism of developers. One can see the relevance of this story to present-day Sydney, a city in which insensitive over-development threatens to leave a legacy of social dysfunction.

Festival audiences seem to have a greater than average interest in indigenous issues, judging by the strong response to films such as In My Own Words, a documentary about Aboriginal students and teachers, and We Don’t Need a Map, Warwick Thornton’s new “poetic essay-film” about the Southern Cross that serves as this year’s opening night feature.

Every film about sexuality is guaranteed to attract an audience, but one suspects Festival viewers are at least mildly interested in the issues involved. Movies such as Ornithologist, which takes a homoerotic view of the life of a saint; or God’s Own Country, billed as Brokeback Mountain for the North of England, have sold out; as has Pulse, in which the mind of a gay, disabled teen is transplanted into the body of a beautiful woman.

There are many films about artists this year, including the documentary, Joseph Beuys: Art as a Weapon; The Final Portrait, a bio pic in which Geoffrey Rush plays Alberto Giacometti; and Maudie, with Sally Hawkins as an arthritic, Canadian folk painter. Afterimage is the last movie by Poland’s greatest director, Andrzej Wajda, who died in 2016. It tells the story of Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a polish avant-garde artist, devoid of an arm and a leg, who was relentlessly persecuted for his progressive views. It’s a powerful production, although not exactly a happy exit for Wadja.

Among the more high profile movies soon to get a theatrical release, there is Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, Michael Hanneke’s The Happy End, and William Oldroyd’s acclaimed Lady MacBeth. I’ll save my comments for another day.

One movie that has proved immensely popular is Rage, a Japanese crime drama in which three separate plot-lines conceal a killer’s identity until the very end. I tuned in with no expectations but should have known better, as the Japanese are producing some of the greatest contemporary whodunits through writers such as Keigo Higashino and Shuichi Yoshida. Rage is based on a novel by Yoshida, and it ticks all the boxes. In a Festival that spends a lot of time consciousness raising there’s still nothing better than a good mystery.

Sydney Film Festival
7-18 June

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 June, 2017