Deciding what to screen on opening night is such a fraught concept for any festival programmer. Do you go with a 'statement' film of quality and pedigree, worthy of the glare associated with opening Sydney's premier film event but which might have the side-effect of being an after-party 'buzzkill'? Do you pick one for the A-list factor, and screen something that guarantees its stars will grace the red carpet, and make the Sunday social pages? Or do you go for something that guarantees an upbeat start to the event, and makes the audience forget they've sat through an endurance test of speeches and sponsor reels in the gorgeous but ergonomically unfriendly State Theatre, by the time the final credits roll?
In the absence of a film that hits the jackpot and does all three, many festivals of late have opted for the latter (though that's far from a 'safe' option – for every Looking For Eric, SFF 2009, there's a The Wedding Party, MIFF 2010). Newly ensconced Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodey will continue this tradition by opening the 2012 Sydney Film Festival with the world premiere of an Australian comedy, Peter Tempelman's Not Suitable For Children. The apparently quite raunchy comedy stars Ryan Kwanten as a self-involved 20-something testicular cancer patient who longs to father a child, and endeavours to plant his remaining seed into a consenting female's ovum whilst he still can. Though it's Tempelman's first feature, he has a demonstrated knack for comedy, having scored an Oscar nomination for his 2007 short about a Mormon doorknocker's crisis of faith, The Saviour.
[Full coverage of the 2012 Sydney Film Festival - reviews, trailers, scene clips]
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Perhaps it's just as well that the festival is opening on a light note, given the heavy thematic territory being traversed in the films selected for the Official Competition for the Sydney Film Prize. From a fiery Indian epic about warring generations of mining magnates (Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur), to an animated story of Korean brutality and classroom bullying (Yuen Sang-Ho's The King of Pigs), the lineup of the Official Competition might lack laughs but it's chock full of enough intrigue and director pedigree to warrant the lengthy queue up Market Street on a windy winter's night.
Fresh from their acclaimed world premieres in Berlin, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Golden Bear-winning Caesar Must Die, and Miguel Gomes' Jury Prizewinner Tabu, will compete for the $60,000 prize, along Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's legendary On The Road, barely a fortnight after its world premiere at Cannes. Benh Zeitlin's Sundance winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild, will compete for the hearts of the jury members – and the tissue supplies of the audience, as will the Oscar nominated Quebecois drama of an Algerian substitute teacher's developing bond with a grieving class of schoolchildren, Monsieur Lazhar.
On the local front, filmmakers (and coincidentally, life partners) Cate Shortland (Somersault) and Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man) make long-awaited returns to feature/narrative filmmaking, with their respective literary adaptations, Lore and Dead Europe. Both feature a European focus, with Shortland's German/English language Lore, exploring the aftermath of the WW2 on the teenage daughter of two SS officers, as her worldview is expanded by a growing relationship with a Jewish boy. Krawitz's Dead Europe is an adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas's story of an Australian photographer's efforts to come to grips with his ancestral ties to Greece.
Continuing the dysfunctional Greek family theme, Yorgos Lanthimos, the filmmaker credited with starting the 'weird wave' of Greek cinema with his warped drama Dogtooth (2009), returns in competition, with Alps, another bizarre take on contemporary Greek society. Lanthimos' film centres on a secret club whose members assume the identities of the recently deceased, in an all-consuming act of roleplay. Given the confronting nature of Dogtooth, one can be certain this synopsis will make for some characteristically awkward reunions with the newly bereaved.
The remaining contenders for the Sydney prize are: Brazil's Neighbouring Sounds, from first time feature filmmaker Kleber Mendonica Filho, about the conflicting responses of a middle class neighbourhood, to the arrival of a private security firm intent on protecting their street; French/Senegalese film Today, from Alain Gomis (whose previous features, L'afrance and Andalucia, have both screened at past SFFs). The intriguing premise sees a healthy Senegalese man wake to the realisation that he will die overnight, and he spends the day with friends and family, in varying states of fear and joy.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL – AT A GLANCE
Opening Night Film
Not Suitable For Children (Peter Templeman)
Closing Night Film
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Caesar Must Die
Gangs of Wasseypur (1 & 2)
The King of Pigs
Lore – Cate Shortland
On The Road
Features direct from Cannes
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson), Opening night, Cannes 2012
Amour (Michael Haneke), In Competition, Cannes 2012
The Angels' Share (Ken Loach), In Competition, Cannes 2012
On The Road (Walter Salles), In Competition, Cannes 2012
La Pirogue (Moussa Touré), Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin), Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2012
The King of Pigs (Yeun Sang-ho) Directors' Fortnight, Cannes 2012
Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap), Directors' Fortnight, Cannes 2012
Woody Allen: A Documentary (Robert b. Weide), Cannes Classics, Cannes 2012
Shorts from Cannes
Night Shift (Zia Mandiwalla), Competition, Cannes 2012
Yardbird (Australia), (Michael Spiccia), Competition, Cannes 2012
Foxtel Documentary Prize
Croker Island Exodus (Steven McGregor)
Utopia (Bruce Petty)
Dr. Sarmast's Music School (Polly Watkins (dir)
Missing in the Land of Gods – (Davor Dirlic)
Killing Anna (Paul Galasch)
Coniston Massacre (Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, david batty (dir)
Paramedico (Ben Gilmour)
Despite the Gods (Penny Vozniak)
Dendy Awards for Short Films
Dave's Dead (Alethea Jones)
Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke (Mirrah Foulkes)
The Hunter (Marieka Walsh)
Julian (Matthew Moore)
The Maker (Chris Kezelos)
Rippled (Darcy Prendergast)
The Wilding (Grant Scicluna)
Yardbird (Michael Spiccia)
Dance Me to The End of Love (Martha Goddard)
B I N O (Billie Pleffer)
The Dreamer: Bertolucci retrospective
This year marks Italian provocateur Bernardo Bertolucci's 50th year in filmmaking, so organisers are honouring him with the festival equivalent of a gold watch – a retrospective. The curated program of restored works premiered at New York's Museum of Modern Art before touring the British Film Institute and Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The latter's curator Roberta Ciabarra acts as guest programmer of the Sydney season.
The Bertolucci program includes: his breakout film that took out the 1964 Cannes critic's prize, Before The Revolution; his first collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – who has personally supervised the striking of new 35mm prints of the films in the program – The Spider's Strategem. Most of the big ticket Bertolucci films are all represented – Last Tango in Paris, La Luna, the oscar-winning The Last Emperor, 1990's The Sheltering Sky, and his 1968-set tribute to young lust and revolutionary fervour, The Dreamers. Ditto the sprawling epic 1900, an all-star account of the starkly divergent paths of two men born on the same day. The latter runs north of five hours, so its Art Gallery of New South Wales screenings are programmed to include a lower-lumbar reviving 50-minute interval. Curiously though, the program won't include the 1970 masterwork The Conformist, nor will Sydney snag the premiere of Bertolucci's first film since The Dreamers (and his first Italian language film in 30 years), Me and You. The story of a teenager who lies to his parents about going on a ski trip only to hide out in the basement with his drug-addled older sister, will be fresh from making its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It would have added extra-special bragging rights to cap off a Bertolucci retrospective with a new film to add to the mix, but then, competition for festival films and prints being what it is, perhaps it's no small thing to have the retrospective in the first place.
Blackfella Films collaboration
Other special presentations of SFF 2012 include Rachel Perkins' biopic of Eddie and Bonita Mabo, to mark the 20th anniversary of their eponymous landmark native title legislation. Mabo will screen in a Blackfella Films-titled strand (so named for Perkins and partner Darren Dale's production and event company), along with: Coniston Massacre, Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty's documentary of the aftermath of the last-known massacre of indigenous population in Australia; Croker Island Exodus, Steven McGregor's story of the legacy of a group of Aboriginal children and their missionary carers, who trekked an extraordinary 5,000km after being stranded during the bombing of Darwin; and Mosquita Y Mari, an American indie feature about Mexican immigrants in LA.
Focus on India
Moodley has also programmed a Focus on Indian cinema, aimed at showcasing contemporary independent cinema that goes beyond typical perceptions of 'Bollywood'. The four films have been programmed to complement the inclusion of the first Indian film to compete for the Sydney Prize (Kashyap's The Gangs of Wasseypur). They tackle themes ranging from: the impact of religious fervour on small village communities (Umesh Vinayak Kulkharni's irreverent The Temple); to desperate acts of protest and the government's violent response (Anand Patwardhan's poetic elegy, Jai Bhim Comrade); to a poet's 20-year struggle to balance his creative life with the practicalities of being a family man (Sandeep Ray's The Sound of Old Rooms), and an environmental love story that shared the feature film award at Sundance, Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints.
The Sydney Film Festival takes place at various locations in Sydney's CBD from June 6-17. SBS Movies will be offering comprehensive coverage of the SFF program, with film reviews and filmmaker interviews, so click here to help co-ordinate your festival experience.