Peter Galvin takes a look at some of the highlights of this year's program.
11 May 2011 - 4:19 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

The 2011 Sydney Film Festival was launched today at Customs House Circular Quay, where a program of 161 films, from 42 countries was announced. Guests, media flacks, sponsors and major players listened for over 40 minutes – and occasionally emitted appreciative sounds approximating enthusiasm – as Festival Director Clare Stewart stood on a small stage and delivered a slick glitch free audio/visual presentation of highlights from the festival, her fifth as SFF's helmer.

The SFF will open on Wednesday 8 June at the State Theatre with a thriller, Hanna (pictured), directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), that Stewart in her program notes bravely describes as an update of The Wizard of Oz via The Bourne Identity. It stars Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett.

The festival closes with Thumbsucker director Mike Mills' comedy Beginners, which stars rising French actor Melanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, cast against type as a guy unlucky in love, on 19 June, also at the State.

Festival guests include Cate Blanchett; Jack Black, Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, here to launch Kung Fu Panda 2 (part of the SFF children's side-bar); filmmaker Miranda July, whose film The Future is in competition; Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of Attenberg, also in competition; Phil Rosenthal, Everybody Loves Raymond creator and director of Exporting Raymond, which screens in the program (see below); Prince Leonard and HRH Princess Shirley, founders of the Hutt River Principality, “the second biggest country on the continent of Australia”; and the 'stars' of Canadian doco How to Start Your Own Country from Jody Shaprio, who is also a guest.

The SFF Official Competition returns this year with a new sponsor from the big end of town, but the same cash prize of $60,000. As was announced last week, famed Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, who won the Palme d'Or in 1993 for Farewell, My Concubine, is Jury President and whose new feature Sacrifice will have its premiere at the festival. The competition boasts a number of films that bow in Cannes in the next fortnight including the Australian features Toomelah (Ivan Sen) and Sleeping Beauty from novelist turned filmmaker Julia Leigh and produced under the imprimatur of Jane Campion, and from the USA, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, originally slated as a 2010 release.

Amongst the other competition highlights is Take Shelter, a psychological thriller from the USA by Jeff Nichols, who directed the excellent Shotgun Stories (2007), which stars the superb Michael Shannon; Target, a Russian sc-fi dystopian fantasia that references Tarkovsky and Fellini; and from Japan, director Tran Anh Hung, who directed the superb Cyclo returns with Norwegian Wood.

In a timely decision, the SFF has elected to highlight the work of two major filmmakers from Iran as part of the 2011 retrospective programming. Last year, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof were both banned from making films in their home country for 20 years. In addition they are serving six years gaol. Their crimes were political; their films opposed the current regime in Iran. The SFF will present eight features from these filmmakers as a form of tribute and protest, including from Panahi The Circle (2000) and The White Balloon (1995) and from Rasoulof, Iron Island (2005) and The White Meadows (2009).

Clearly one of the major coups for the SFF program this year is Bela Tarr's The Turin House. The director of the sublime Satantango returns with what Stewart calls a “grand work of apocalyptic minimalism.” Amongst the new Australian films are Black & White & Sex, the directorial debut of Rabbit-Proof Fence producer John Winter; 33 Postcards, starring Guy Pearce and Zhu Lin, the first official co-production between China and NSW. Directed by Pauline Chan, it concerns a Chinese girl searching for her adult pen pal in Sydney. Hail is the first dramatic feature from Bastardy director Amiel Courtin-Wilson, a love story about an ex-con.

Stewart has also programmed two new films that speak directly to the all pervasive powers of social networking and the 'new' digital form generated by 'home' users: Life in a Day is the already notorious documentary feature from Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and directed by Kevin MacDonald and created through YouTube, and We Were Here: The Map My Summer Film from Screen Australia. Directed by Amy Gebhardt, this is a collection of short digital videos submitted through YouTube aiming to chronicle 'summer'.

Last year, well-known Sydney genre fan and all-round cinephile Richard Kuipers was the guest programmer for a side-bar on vampire flicks. He's back this year with splatter, shock and weirdness in something the festival has dubbed 'Freak Me Out,' a collection of nine features including End of Animal from Korea, Hobo with a Shotgun from Canada/USA, starring Rutger Hauer, a film that had its origins in a Grindhouse spoof trailer, and Japan's Mutant Girls Squad about, well, a 16-year-old school who discovers that she is part of a mutant clan who must fight humans for the right to survive. Kuipers promises that much blood will flow. Incidentally, Nash Edgerton's new Cannes-accepted short, Bear, screens in this side-bar with Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, a satire on 'nasty' hillbilly exploitation flicks from Canada.

The Australian documentary prize is back again with 10 films, some of them made by notable veterans of the form, and all are world premieres: Tom Zubrycki, a SFF regular, will screen The Hungry Tide, which deals with climate change in the form of a personal story from the Pacific nation of Kiribati; Mitzi Goldman's A Common Purpose deals with Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa; Dancing with Dictators is the new film from Mr. Sin director Hugh Piper, about the arrest of Burma based news editor Ross Dunkley; and Scarlet Road, from veteran filmmaker Catherine Scott, follows Rachel Wotton, a sex worker who specialises in providing sexual intimacy for people who live with disabilities. From Janine Hosking comes I'm Not Dead Yet; based on the trailer this looks like a funny/sad character portrait of a half-forgotten (hence the title) pop-culture icon of the '50s and '60s, country-singer-satirist Chad Morgan

The main program also features a number of highly anticipated documentaries: Martin Scorsese, partnering again with Kent Jones (they made the superb The Man in the Shadows, about Val Lewton) has tackled the life and work of Elia Kazan, one of the most controversial of Hollywood's 'Golden Age' directors. In Letter to Elia, Jones and Scorsese canvas Kazan's testimonial before HUAC as well as exploring his extraordinary gifts as director in films like On the Waterfront and East of Eden. Another filmmaker long overdue for re-assessment is Roger Corman; writer-director Alex Stapleton gives the King of the B's his due in Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

Tabloid, the latest from great American filmmaker Errol Morris, is another major film for the festival. Already acclaimed as one of the director's best films, it concerns a thirty-year-old celebrity scandal and it's a return to Morris' favourite theme – our capacity for self-delusion. Veteran Fred Wiseman returns with Boxing Gym, about 'Lord's', a gym in Austin Texas.

One trailer that brought the house down at today's launch was for Exporting Raymond, about a Moscow based production company's effort to adapt the US TV hit Everybody Love Raymond into Russian. Full of wisecracks from ELR creator Phil Rosenthal, and suffused with cultural cringe (that travels both ways), this looks like a sleeper hit for the festival.

Stay tuned to SBS TWO on Wednesday nights throughout June for our Sydney Film Festival Retrospective and celebrate a diverse selection of specially curated festival faves from the comfort of your own home.

For more details on the 2011 program, visit the Sydney Film Festival website.