An especially large crowd is expected to gather for her funeral later this week because of the love and respect felt for her – and also her husband, the actor William McInnes.
“She is an exceptional artist and an extraordinary human being who saw things that most people overlooked, and who understood that it was often the small moments that spoke most loudly of larger feelings we all share,” said Barbara Masel, a key collaborator on her both her features and a friend.
“Her films could really make us laugh while being about big deep serious things. And always she cared about making the work the best it could be rather than where it would take her own career.”
Watt's debut film Look Both Ways was an extraordinary success. It opened the Adelaide Film Festival early in 2005 and was subsequently voted audience favourite. It won the FIPRESCI film critics' award for Asia Pacific film at the Brisbane International Film Festival and the Discovery Award after its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It earned Watt the best director and best screenplay awards at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, the Inside Film (IF) Awards and the Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards. The Proposition won best film at the IF Awards but Look Both Ways producer Bridget Ikin took home the best film prize at the other two ceremonies.
It sold nearly A$3m worth of tickets in Australia and for a small film with no star power, this was seen as a very good result.
“It is an honest and heartfelt film that stands out in a sea of films that are similar and formulaic, with style over substance,” Andrew Mackie, then co-head of distributor Dendy, said at the time.
Among her many short animated short films was Little Treasures, which won best short film at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.
Look Both Ways was strikingly real and intimate, and full of life and death. One of the storylines featured the character of Nick – played by McInnes –struggling to accept that he has cancer. The terrible twist is that Watt herself was diagnosed with breast cancer during post-production. She was told she had secondary bone cancer in 2009.
During her wait to see a specialist, she analysed her own responses to what was happening to her and was relieved that the script rang true, she told this journalist not long after the film was finished.
“I kept thinking: 'Breast cancer is common so why not me'. But also that I'd hexed myself, that the illness had told me to write the film but I should have just had a mammogram instead,” she said with her characteristic dry humour.
Watt was in her early 50s when she died. She and McInnes recently published a book, Worst Things Happen At Sea. Together they had two children, Clem, aged 18 and Stella, 13.
SBS commemorates acclaimed Australian storyteller Sarah Watt with a special presentation of Look Both Ways, this Saturday at 10.20pm on SBS ONE.