Serving on a film festival jury can be a fun, stimulating and rewarding exercise. It can also be a tough job, particularly if the films in competition vary widely in artistic goals, tonal temperament and overall quality.
Such is not the difficulty facing New Zealand-born writer-director-cinematographer Costa Botes, Australian producer Helen Bowden and Jim Buchan, the veteran television programmer charged with chairing the four-year-old FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize selection process at the 2012 Sydney Film Festival. In truth, the opposite is true: the majority of titles on offer are distinctly worthy of the accolade as well as the $10,000 purse that comes with it.
In ascending order of one attendee’s preference, here are some thoughts on each of the eight films vying for the prize.
Calculated to shock, provoke and amuse their audiences, writer-producer-director Paul Gallasch’s 29-minute meditation on a soured relationship, Killing Anna, and veteran writer-director Bruce Petty’s 56-minute Utopia, in which a documentary film presenter injured on set imagines an ideal state of personal and societal bliss, share both a festival slot and a brave spirit of adventure and individualism. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they represent the kind of big-canvas personal filmmaking distinctive to the Australian industry.
Clocking in at around an hour each, both Steven McGregor’s Croker Island Exodus and Coniston, the newest work from long-time filmmaking team Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty, are clear-eyed historical documentaries that employ judiciously balanced dramatic recreations to illustrate key moments of fortitude and scandal in Australian history. The former employs a visual lyricism sure to touch even the hardest of hearts, whilst the sense of impending tragedy in the latter creates and sustains a palpable tension that avoids exploitation even as it humanises the players.
When a non-fiction filmmaker’s subject is overly abrasive or otherwise mercurial, he or she must work that much harder to keep their audience. Such seems to be the task that confronted Penny Vozniak, whose feature-length Despite the Gods documents eight months spent on location in India with Jennifer Lynch as the daughter of David and enfant terrible behind the notorious Boxing Helena tries mightily to wrestle the horror film Hisss into existence. Cultural challenges aside, Lynch is an emotional handful, though the doco’s point that a lot of effort goes into the creation of even the most ill-fated ventures is always a timely one.
Give director and EMT Benjamin Gilmour’s audacious Paramedico a half-hour or so to reveal itself, as his bold juxtaposition of subject and music takes some getting used to. A fly-on-the-wall look at the methodology, equipment and people skills of ambulance crews in Venice, Lahore, Honolulu and Mexico City, the film’s score leans heavily on the kind of waka-waka orchestrations that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s American cop show, dentist office or soft-core porn film. Improbably, Gilmour’s gambit works, helped immeasurably by the affable antics of a Hawaiian EMT named Tippy and a running gag in which the Mexican ambulance continually runs out of petrol.
Taking over an Afghani institution whose orchestra was incapable of playing its own country’s national anthem, a musicologist mixes diplomacy and determination on equal measure to create Dr. Sarmast’s Music School. Polly Watkins’ film benefits enormously from an attention to detail and measured tone that tell the story with a minimum of fuss and an emphasis on the patience and vision Sarmast must muster to establish the Afghan National Institute of Music. “The more we stay with music,” someone says, “the further we will get from war.”
“If I’m gone, don’t worry, I’m not dead,” Australian Ryan Chambers wrote in his diary during a 2005 pilgrimage to northern India. “I’m just freeing minds, and to do that I had to free my own.” Davor Dirlic’s riveting Missing in the Land of the Gods follows Chambers’ parents Jock and Di as they make yet another pilgrimage of their own to the Himalayan foothills in search of their son. Endowed with an unshakeable optimism and a seemingly bottomless well of tolerance, theirs is and inspirational story of perseverance and patience in the face of one of a parent’s worst nightmares: not knowing.
The winner of the FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize will be announced during the Sydney Film Festival’s closing night ceremony 17 June, and a full run-down of the awards will appear in this space shortly thereafter.
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