It was the largest single audience yet to see Steve Maing’s High Tech, Low Life, in which he bravely and deftly profiles two very different kinds of contemporary Chinese online activists, and the director was thrilled at the Sydneysider turnout. Meanwhile, producer-director-screenwriter-somewhat-distressed-subject Paul Gallasch continued to fret over whether audiences would find the humour in his raw look at a broken relationship and the wake he throws for his still-very-much alive ex, Killing Anna.
And it rained.
Thus went the first half of the 2012 edition of the Sydney Film Festival, which has retained a bright-eyed energy in the face of inclement weather and the occasional recalcitrance of a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, the newfangled technology that makes it possible—or not—to screen films from hard drives instead of reels. Organisers have been chuffed at the strong turnout and the between-venues social haven Festival Hub has been an unqualified hit.
All well and good, but what about the films themselves? Given the global breadth of the non-fictions titles on offer, programmers could certainly be forgiven if themes failed to emerge or coalesce.
And yet they did. The ubiquitous trend towards artist profiles continues apace, with many of them clustered in the Sounds on Screen strand. Paul Simon hasn’t aged as well as his supposedly naïve decision to run the artistic blockade in place to record the phenomenally successful Rhythm of the Saints in mid-eighties South Africa, and Joe Berlinger’s absorbing Under African Skies paints a straight-ahead portrait of the returning artist as he reunites with the musicians in Johannesburg a quarter century on.
Unjoo Moon’s respectful profile of durable crooner Tony Bennett cries out for its title, The Zen of Bennett; a big believer in just getting along with everybody, the singer does just that as Dion Beebe’s camera follow the recording sessions of his recent Duets II collection. An unfortunate highlight is his in-studio time with Amy Winehouse, over whom he frets prior to her arrival about the drug use that killed her shortly thereafter.
At 145 minutes, Kevin Macdonald’s Marley leaves no stone unturned in its pursuit of reggae star Bob Marley and his turbulent life, chaotic times and thrillingly inspirational music. Some observed that it is a workmanlike and even conservatively made thing, but coming from the director of One Day in September and Touching the Void, it is clear that Macdonald prefers thorough research and an unobtrusive directorial style that allows his subject to speak clearly and cogently.
The second tangible theme shared by many of the documentary features on offer was equally unsurprising. Filmmakers engaged with the social issues of the day now have the technical wherewithal and available financial support to tell stories of deception and injustice. Such is the case with veteran Canada-based filmmaker Lea Pool’s National Film Board-funded Pink Ribbons Inc., which employs a kind of harnessed outrage to expose the corporate greed lurking just beneath the surface of the immensely popular global awareness campaign against breast cancer.
Of the more than a dozen non-fiction feature-length titles yet to screen on the festival’s final weekend, at least one gem emerges. For those apprehensive over the artistic and technical pitfalls surrounding the accelerating switchover from chemical-based 35mm film to the more compact yet still buggy digital method of production and exhibition, Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side is a must-see. Keanu Reeves is the affable interlocutor quizzing both film die-hards (Christopher Nolan) and digital pioneers (James Cameron) about the future of cinema. And for the neophyte, the chronological relating of the forces behind the shift will pose and answer all the relevant questions.
And, in the end, isn’t that what the best films—as well as the festivals that advocate them—aim to do?
About this writer
Patrick Lindsay's book shows that to understand the Anzac spirit we must first understand the spirit of Gallipoli.
The untold story of Australian soldiers caught up in war and revolution during the invasion of Russia in 1918-1919.
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