Sundance winner Beasts of the Southern Wild headlines the Sydney Film Festival's program.
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2 Apr 2012 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2012 - 12:00 AM

The man responsible for the 2012 Sydney Film Festival (SFF) program, Nashen Moodley, has nominated US director Benh Zeitlin's debut Beasts of the Southern Wild and Portuguese critic-turned-filmmaker Miguel Gomes' Tabu as the must-see films in the sneak peak list of 15 features and 10 documentaries released today.

Both are “really surprising, very daring and unique”, said Moodley after being pushed into highlighting just two of the 25 in order to reveal more of his cinematic appetite.

His previous job was programming the Durban International Film Festival. “If you look at the last five Sydney programs and my Durban programs you would find a lot of similarities," Moodley explains. "Clare [predecessor Clare Stewart] and my tastes aren't exactly the same but I see no need for a radical shift.”

The central character in Beasts, 2012 Sundance dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner, is a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy who goes in search of her mother at a time when the icebergs are melting and prehistoric creatures are emerging.

Beasts will shock and surprise in a very pleasant way,” said Moodley. “As for Tabu, it is a difficult film to categorise but in making my program selections (about two-thirds of the films are in place apparently), I rarely saw a film twice but I chose to see this one twice. It is a wonderful, poetic film that takes you to a place you don't expect to go.”

Tabu, FIPRESCI Prize winner at Berlin, focuses on three characters in a Lisbon apartment building – a temperamental old woman, her maid and a neighbour – and a tale of love and crime set in Africa.

Most of the features in the batch unveiled are prize winners: Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighbouring Sounds (Rotterdam FIPRESCI Prize) from Brazil, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Canes Grand Prix) from Turkey, Alexander Sokurov's Faust (Golden Lion, Venice), Ann Hui's A Simple Life (Asian Film Award, best Asian film) from Hong Kong, Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair (best screenplay, best actor Berlin) from Denmark, and Christian Petzold's Barbara (best director, Berlin) from Germany.

Moodley's job is about acquiring the best films from right across the world but it “is not as simple as it was in South Africa” because many more distributors operate in Australia and many festivals compete for films to show Sydney audiences – 21 in the list are Australian premieres and, as a minimum, the SFF insists on NSW premieres. Having a broader range of films showing on the big screen year round is good for audiences though, he notes.

Two Sundance winners are in the documentary list: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's The Law in These Parts from Israel and Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man. Also included are a look at Woody Allen's life and work, Paul Simon's reunion with the musicians who helped him create the megahit Graceland, and the move from film to digital, narrated and co-produced by actor Keanu Reeves.

Moodley said he has seen many films with migration as a theme and is perhaps looking at them with a different mindset because of his own relocation to Sydney, saying “I'm not sure how many will make their way into the final program, though.”

When asked to reveal just one of the four competition titles that he has locked off for the festival, he exclaimed, “No way!”

The full program for the June 6-17 event will be released on May 9.

Feature Films:

Beasts of the Southern Wild
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
USA
Winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2012, this striking and unforgettable feature-film debut is set in 'The Bathtub' – a defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. Six-year-old Hushpuppy is devoted to her father, Wink, who tries to prepare her for a dangerous new world, as the icebergs melt and prehistoric creatures descend.

Tabu
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Miguel Gomes
Starring: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira
Portugal, Germany, Brazil, France
In this utterly beguiling and surprising film, a temperamental old woman, her Cape Verdean maid and a neighbour devoted to social causes live on the same floor of a Lisbon apartment building. When the old lady dies, the other two learn of an episode from her past: a tale of love and crime set in an Africa straight from the world of adventure films.

Neighbouring Sounds
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn, Maeve Jinkings
Brazil
In this assured and astonishing feature film debut, life in a middle-class neighbourhood in present-day Recife, Brazil, takes an unexpected turn after the arrival of an independent private-security firm. Their presence brings a sense of safety but also a good deal of anxiety to a culture which runs on fear in this reflection on class, architecture, violence and noise.

The Loneliest Planet
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Julia Loktev
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze USA, Germany
Alex and Nica are young, in love and engaged. Travelling in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, they hire a local guide to lead them on a backpacking trek through a stunning wilderness. The idyll is interrupted by a momentary misstep that cannot be undone – one that threatens to undo everything the couple believed about each other and themselves.

Rampart
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster
USA
Written by director Oren Moverman and novelist James Ellroy, the gritty Rampart is set in Los Angeles in 1999 and revolves around Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), a trigger-happy cop whose brutality is out of step with the times. When he is caught on tape beating a suspect, Brown's professional and personal lives begin to spiral out of control.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel
Turkey
Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan takes on the police procedural, and the result is a patient and beautifully layered narrative in which every line of dialogue contributes to solving the puzzle. Following a murder and confession, a group of men go in search of the corpse, and discover a great deal more. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 2011.
Watch trailer

Faust
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Alexander Sokurov
Starring: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinskiy, Isolda Dychauk
Russia
Inspired by Goethe's play, Alexander Sokurov radically reinterprets the myth of Faust in this visually stunning film which won the Golden Lion in Venice. Sokurov's Faust is a thinker, rebel and pioneer, but is also driven by greed and lust. After Moloch (Hitler), Taurus (Lenin) and The Sun (Hirohito), Faust is the final film in Sokurov's tetralogy on power.

Harold's Going Stiff
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Keith Wright
Starring: Stan Rowe, Sarah Spencer, Phil Gascoyne
UK
You've never seen a zombie movie like this before. Fashioned in the style of a BBC regional documentary, Keith Wright's very funny and surprisingly touching tale investigates 'Onset Rigors Disease', a mystery illness turning men in the north of England into bloodthirsty ghouls. Featuring sharp social satire and charming inter-species romance, Harold's Going Stiff is a truly original horror gem.

A Simple Life
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Ann Hui
Starring: Deanie Ip, Andy Lau, Qin Hailu
Hong Kong, China
With perfect performances from Andy Lau and Deanie Ip, Ann Hui's moving film looks at the decades-long relationship between a man and a devoted family servant. Having cared for Roger from childhood, Ah Tao suffers a stroke and is admitted into a nursing home. Roles are reversed as Roger tenderly cares for her in the final phase of her life.

A Royal Affair
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Føesgaard
Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany
Winner of Best Screenplay and Best Actor prizes at Berlin, A Royal Affair is the true story of an ordinary man who wins a queen's heart and starts a revolution. At its centre is an intriguing love triangle between Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Føesgaard); Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the man of enlightenment; and young queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander).

Goodbye
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Starring: Leyla Zareh, Hasaan Pourshirazi, Behname Tashakor
Iran
Mohammad Rasoulof, who was honoured at SFF 2011, returns with the suspenseful and moving story of a young lawyer whose licence to practice has been revoked as punishment for protesting against the government. Pregnant and alone, Noora is determined to leave Iran and must manoeuvre through the bureaucracy – not a simple task for a single woman pursued by the state.
Read review

Barbara
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Germany
In East Germany in 1980, a doctor is exiled to a country hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa. As her lover from the West carefully plots her escape, Barbara waits patiently and avoids friendships, but a co-worker and a traumatised patient chip away at her defenses and she slowly loses control. Winner of Best Director at Berlin.

Beauty
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Starring: Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan, Michelle Scott
South Africa, France
In this fascinating study of desire, South African director Oliver Hermanus focuses on Francois, a middle-aged, Afrikaans-speaking family man who becomes obsessed with the young son of longtime friends. As Francois begins to stalk the young man, his carefully constructed world begins to unravel. Winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes 2011.
Read review

Monsieur Lazhar
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Phillipe Falardeau
Starring: Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron
Canada
This Oscar-nominated drama is the moving story of a group of schoolchildren coming to terms with the adult world, and the inspirational educator who transforms their lives. When a beloved teacher passes away, an Algerian immigrant is appointed as substitute. While the class begins to heal, nobody in the school is aware of Lazhar's painful past and uncertain future.

Some Guy Who Kills People
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Jack Perez
Starring: Kevin Corrigan, Karen Black, Barry Bostwick
USA
Fresh from a spell in the loony bin, and the prime suspect in a series of bizarre murders, sensitive artist Kenny Boyd might also be Some Guy Who Kills People. Droll humour, juicy gore and terrific performances from Kevin Corrigan and the great Karen Black as Kenny's acid-tongued mum make for a delightfully deranged treat.

Documentaries:

The Law in These Parts
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz
Israel
This brilliant documentary, a Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, explores the framework for Israel's long-term military 'rule of law' in the Occupied Territories. The system's architects – including military judges, attorneys and a former Supreme Court president – submit to a series of uncomfortable interviews in which they are asked to consider the consequences of the laws they have crafted.

Woody Allen: A Documentary
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Robert B Weide
USA
This riveting look at the creative life of the multi-hyphenate filmmaker from his early years to his stand-up days and recent Oscar win is packed with clips (Bananas, Annie Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and interviews with a plethora of stars (including Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson and Owen Wilson), his mother and, of course, the man himself.

Crazy Horse
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Frederick Wiseman
USA, France
Frederick Wiseman (La danse, Ballet) turns his impeccable gaze on Le Crazy Horse de Paris, the self- tagged 'best nude dancing show in the world'. The master documentarian follows two obsessive perfectionists, choreographer Decouflé and artistic director Mahdavi, as they create a fabulous new erotic revue, featuring exquisite performers and eye-catching effects.

Under African Skies
Director: Joe Berlinger
USA
Paul Simon reunites with the musicians who collaborated on his 1986 megahit Graceland – which stirred controversy upon its release when Simon was accused of breaking the cultural boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Prizewinning filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) follows Simon as he confronts his critics and celebrates a landmark artistic achievement.

Maori Boy Genius
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Pietra Brettkelly
New Zealand
“What if some shrewd filmmaker had recognised Barack Obama's boyhood promise and documented the birth of his political consciousness as a teen?” So runs the tagline for New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly's compelling documentary – an up-close study of Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, a charismatic 16-year-old who has been pegged as a future leader since boyhood by his Maori community.

Side by Side
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Chris Kenneally
USA
In this entertaining and illuminating documentary, narrator and co-producer Keanu Reeves interviews film industry heavyweights – directors (James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan and Lars von Trier), cinematographers (including Australians Donald McAlpine and Dion Beebe), editors and technicians – to investigate how the shift from celluloid to pixels has changed the way films are crafted and exhibited.

El Gusto
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Safinez Bousbia
France, Algeria, Ireland, UAE
Chaabi – the effervescent popular music of the Casbah of Algiers – once brought both Muslim and Jewish musicians together in a unique orchestra. The 1954 War of Independence fractured this harmony, forcing many musicians to flee, while others joined the struggle. Through their stories (and eventual reunion), director Safinez Bousbia sketches a portrait of Algerian history – accompanied by chaabi's intoxicating rhythms.

First Position
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Bess Kargman
USA
Six talented young performers pursue their dancing dreams at the Youth America Grand Prix, the most prestigious children's ballet acompetition in the world. The relentless practice routines, backstage nerves, fiercely supportive ballet moms and the overwhelming joy of dance – it's all on screen in this multiple-award-winning documentary.

Golden Slumbers
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Davy Chou
France, Cambodia
The golden age of Cambodian cinema ended in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, trashing cinemas and film reels, and forcing filmmakers to flee or die. In his eye-opening documentary, director Davy Chou traces the lost celluloid years with visits to one-time movie houses and production lots, and haunting interviews with the few surviving cast and crew.

Searching for Sugar Man
(Australian Premiere)
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Sweden, UK
Winner of a World Cinema Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance, this film traces the improbable-but-true story of 70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez, a Detroit soul dude who failed to make the charts in his US homeland, but found an enthusiastic audience in Apartheid-era South Africa – although neither he nor his managers knew until two dedicated fans tracked him down.

For more information visit the official website.