Why see films that you’ll be able to see later on the big screen if the buzz makes you feel that way inclined? That’s the question that underpins this attempt to find the hidden gems in the program of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, which opens on June 3. These films are those highly unlikely to be available in Sydney cinemas ever again.
The courage of US director Matthew Heineman underpins the making of this documentary about vigilantes on both sides of the Mexico/US border taking a stand against drug cartels. “I never knew who I was with: the good guys or the bad guys,” he says in the video below. Heineman won awards for best directing and, with Matt Porwoll, best cinematography in the documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Zhao Wei has won half a dozen major awards for her performance as a woman in rural China coping with the loss of a child, although this big dramatic film initially focuses on grief-stricken divorced parents going through a similar situation in Shenzhen. Director Peter Ho-Sun Chan is known for his ability to make films that are very popular in China – a lucrative skill to have. He describes the themes here as “the one-child policy and traditional Chinese feudal beliefs that boys are more important than girls … rural versus urban and the gap between the rich and the poor”. His comments on filmmaking in China are worth reading too.
SFF director Nashen Moodley is from Durban and this insider knowledge signals that the five very diverse films in the South Africa focus deserve a careful look. It’s a tough call but the vote goes to Necktie Youth, a big dose of visceral contemporary black and white realism about young adults. While a mature audience might see it as a story of disaffected youth from the nice suburbs of Johannesburg in a post Nelson Mandela world, director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer describes it as about kids being kids. He plays one of the lead characters and also says the film is heavily based on his own experience. Go here to see what else he’s said about the thinking behind the high-energy picture picture.
Classy horror with humour is the impression left by the reviews of this Austrian film in which young twin sons suspect their mother isn’t really their mother when she comes home with her head fully bandaged. It’s the fiction directorial debut of both Veronika Franz and her nephew Severin Fiala, whose friendship grew off the back of watching DVDs together. Fiala says in this Q&A in FilmComment that one of the themes is modern families, more specifically single motherhood. Franz also collaborated on husband Ulrich Seidl’s documentary In The Basement – and his chilling Paradise trilogy shown at the 2013 SFF – which is also in the 2015 SFF program, as is a documentary about him.
Murder in Pacot
More than 300,000 people were killed and a million left homeless in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. When director Raoul Peck was making a documentary about the aftermath of the crisis he decided to make a companion drama that focuses on the middle classes. As he explains here (lead actor Alex Descas is also featured in this video), he sees the film as a story about inequality that could be applied to many societies. Peck is a former culture minister and political activist as well as a filmmaker. Peck was a festival guest in 2010 - see our interview with him from the 2010 Sydney Film Festival here.
Near Death Experience
It is unavoidable that the personal informs any top ten list but this pared back drama, which is “strange, intriguing and funny” according to the program, is probably my most personal choice. It’s included for two key reasons. Firstly I’m very interested in why people contemplate suicide. Secondly what are festivals for if not to very deliberately give yourself viewing experiences that will be uncomfortable: in this case I have a set against the unlikely star of the show, French author Michel Houellebecq, because of an adverse reaction to his novel Atomised. In this video interview with Houellebecq and the directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern it’s the poetic nature of the film that is emphasised.
Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is the subject of this documentary-with-animation by directors Jason Silverman and Sembène’s official biographer, Samba Gadjigo. Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl was the first feature released by a sub-Saharan African director – hence his description as “the father of African cinema” – and he had nine features to his credit when he died in 2007 aged in his 80s. He was an activist who didn’t shy away from tough subjects and understood the power of filmmaking. Nor do the filmmakers shy away from his weaknesses apparently – and one of his falls from grace was very dramatic. Sembène! screened at Sundance and Cannes and the film’s website is here. Other films about filmmakers in this year’s program include the drama Pasolini and the documentaries Listen to Me Marlon and Ulrich Seidl – A Director at Work.
The protagonist in this contemporary drama was born female but, as is permissible under Albanian custom (who knew!), became a chaste man to avoid marriage. Years later he/she travels abroad to find her sister. This debut feature by Italian director Laura Bispuri is an adaptation of a novel by Elvira Dones. In 2015 it earned Tribeca’s US$25,000 Nora Ephron prize for filmmakers with a distinctive voice and the jury described it as “exquisite in its broadness and its intimacy … (and) a truly original story”. This originality and the contrast between the two very different worlds depicted sounds very appealing, as does the techniques Bispuri used to try to convey Hana/Mark’s “inner voyage” as discussed here.
Tyke Elephant Outlaw
All 10 films in the running for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award look like they’re worth seeing frankly but, forced to choose, the one that sounds irresistible is about a “strong-willed” circus elephant who went on a rampage in Honolulu more than two decades ago. That said, there’s a high risk of walking away broken hearted because of the way cruelty-to-animals themes can stab so deeply. Co-directors Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert are said to have included some astonishing archival footage and it has secured a deal with BBC’s Storyville, one of the world’s most prestigious documentary broadcast strands. There’s plenty of info at the film’s website here.
One critic favourably compared this film about a teenager who decides to change her fate to the work of Werner Herzog. Director Jayro Bustamante returned home to collect stories to feed into the development of this film, the first from Guatemala to ever screen at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for “new perspectives”. It later won best fiction film at Colombia’s Cartagena Festival, an important platform for Latin American cinema. Bustamante talks here about renting a spot at a market and putting up a sign that said “Casting”. No-one came. “The next day we changed the sign to “Jobs Offered” and there was a huge line of people waiting”.