Clearly, the Sydney love affair with the documentary is continuing apace. Over the next fortnight these blog posts will examine individual non-fiction titles in the 2012 Sydney Film Festival (SFF) program, explore over-arching themes either intentional or coincidental or both and offer perspectives on the state of the form.
The first sellout posted to the SFF iPhone app was a non-fiction film, Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary. Chalk that up to Allen’s popularity rather than the SFF audience love of docos at your own peril. The foodie documentary Step Up to the Plate is also gone, as are individual screenings of the musical biography Searching for Sugar Man, the childrens’ ballet-set First Position and the true-life British murder mystery Dreams of a Life. Sessions of the Paul Simon documentary Under African Skies and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Israeli expose The Law in These Parts are packed out as well.
According to the festival’s official press release, there are 43 feature-length documentaries on offer—45 if one counts Caesar Must Die in competition and a vintage on-set profile of the filmmaker and his methods in the Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective—alongside 67 dramatic titles.
Two entire program strands are devoted to non-fiction films: the Foxtel Australian Documentary Prize will be chosen from amongst eight feature-length and short works (six of them world premieres), whilst the seven Sounds on Screen titles offer glimpses into Algerian folk music, the life and influence of Bob Marley, the odd saga of Sugar Man, a tribute concert to Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, Paul Simon’s return to make music Under African Skies, the enduring cool of Tony Bennett, and a recently-unearthed documentary about The Easybeats’ 1967 visit to London.
The beating heart of the non-fiction form at the SFF is International Documentaries, curated as always by indefatigable long-time festival programs manager Jenny Neighbour. The 26 feature-length titles in this section, representing 17 countries and all save one Australian premieres, encompass artist profiles (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present, the aforementioned Woody Allen doco); award-winners from festivals around the world; and, in the case of Keanu Reeves’ celluloid-vs.-digital meditation Side by Side and the controversial expose Bully, films with an extraordinary amount of advance word and anticipation.
On top of these riches, most of the other programming strands have documentaries tucked away within them, waiting to be discovered. The Official Competition, now in its fifth year, includes the hotly-anticipated Caesar Must Die, the prison-set blend of narrative and documentary from the venerable Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio. In Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, the inmates mount a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that has a ripple effect on the way these men view themselves, each other and the very idea of incarceration.
Winner of the Golden Bear grand prize at February’s Berlin Film Festival, Caesar Must Die would seem to have an inside track in the SFF competition, as two of the four previous winners take place in or around prisons: Hunger in 2008 and Bronson the next year.
The demand for Step Up to the Plate tickets is understandable, given that the first of its two screenings will be followed by a four-course meal inspired by the portrait of French master chef Michel Bras and the transitional year in which he hands the reigns of his legendary three-Michelin Star hotel/restaurant over to his son Sébastien.
Long unseen in any form, director Gianni Amelio’s The Cinema According to Bertolucci was shot on the set of the seminal Italian director’s 1976 autobiographical epic 1900 and shows the filmmaker at the top of his then-formidable game. Alongside the eight feature films selected for the Bertolucci retrospective—all presented in new 35mm prints—the documentary is nothing less than a revelation.
Though only four independently produced titles comprise the Focus on India strand, two of them are non-fiction films: SFF veteran producer-director Anand Patwardhan will present his award-winning 195-minute epic Jai Bhim Comrade, examining a 1997 slaughter by police of unarmed protestors, whilst in The Sound of Old Rooms, producer-director Sandeep Ray spends two decades filming an Indian man struggling to balance his ambitions as a poet and obligations to family.
How to prioritise, what to see? As always in the film festival milieu, a good rule of thumb is to read a film’s credit block. “Sales Agent” or “Production Company” means the film was at catalogue press-time without distribution in Australia; move these to the head of the booking queue, as there’s no guarantee they’ll screen again in Sydney.
Films listed with a “Distributor” means there’s a company in Australia that owns rights to exhibit or otherwise distribute the film here. Whilst this is no guarantee it will show up on theatrical screens, chances are much stronger for a television broadcast and/or DVD release in the near future.
Check back for more analysis at intervals throughout the festival, and happy hunting.
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