For the fifth year in a row, Hobart’s quaint Peacock Theatre in Salamanca Place will be overrun with female filmmakers and audiences primed for horror and genre movies with a focus on women’s perspectives. Co-founded by young Tasmanian filmmakers Briony Kidd and Rebecca Thomson, and largely volunteer-run, The Stranger With My Face International Film Festival (4 – 7 May) is a unique event that’s far more than a girlie horror fan club. It’s a festival that combines screenings of new work by local and international genre filmmakers, as well as retrospectives, networking events, and an invitation-only mentoring program (The Attic Lab) designed to actually midwife new films into the world by pairing emerging talents with established guests.
Voted one of the Top 5 Coolest Women’s Film Festivals in the world by Movie Maker Magazine in 2013, SWMFIFF has grown in scope and confidence, while retaining its intimate and cosy Tassie vibe. With just one big screen, this is the kind of festival where you can meet every other audience member and visiting filmmaker either in the cinema or at the bar. And, transcending its initial brief to feature horror, the program is now designed to have something for everyone – from hardcore horror to gentle, dreamy ghost stories, uncanny thrillers, and the odd comedic bloodbath thrown in.
Festival director and artistic programmer Briony Kidd says, “I’ve moved away from thinking purely about women-directed horror and now it’s about something that fits within that framework but is not always technically about horror or thriller. I think those really narrow horror definitions are really quite tedious, and it’s more interesting to try to curate a conversation and highlight filmmakers that deserve to be celebrated or seen. I’ve started to think more about, ‘What is a Stranger With My Face film?’ rather than, ‘What is a horror film?’. I guess that’s my growing confidence as a programmer – saying that I actually don’t have to justify this, I just have to be consistent in what I’m doing.”
We haven’t seen them all yet, but in a program full of intriguing offerings, here are some of our picks from the 2017 Stranger With My Face International Film Festival:
Opening Night Film: XX
USA & Canada | 2017
This anthology of four dark tales directed by women is a stylish and spooky collection from producer Roxanne Benjamin (who produced the 2012 found-footage horror sensation V/H/S). Benjamin also directs one of the four segments – Don’t Fall – the goriest and most splattery monsterish story of the otherwise restrained collection. The other stories are: The Box, Jovanka Vuckovic’s eery story of a mother whose son first, then daughter, then husband, mysteriously stop eating after glimpsing the contents of a stranger’s box; The Birthday Party, directed by Annie Clark (also known as musician St Vincent), a surreal suburban tale about an uptight mother (played by the wonderful Melanie Lynskey) who discovers her husband’s suicide on the day of her daughter’s birthday party, but decides that the show must go on. Rounding out the collection is the accomplished and creepy Her Only Living Son, directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body). Here, a mother grapples with her love her teenage son but her growing awareness of his dark destiny. Think of it as a reimagined follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby.
XX Producer and director Roxanne Benjamin will also be a guest of the festival, in attendance for a Q&A and performing mentoring duties in the Attic Lab.
Australian Premiere: The Book of Birdie
UK | 2017 | Director - Elizabeth E. Schuch
Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski), a sensitive and dark-eyed teenager, is placed in a dying convent after her grandmother struggles to deal with her bloody obsessions. But in the midst of the pious nuns, the choirs and the candlelight, strange visions and bodily emanations raise the question of whether Birdie has a spiritual vocation or is in fact a heretic. This atmospheric and lusciously good-looking film is the feature debut of the London-based Elizabeth E. Schuch, whose previous work has been in the visuals and art departments of films like Wonder Woman and Pacific Rim.
Elizabeth E. Schuch will also attend the festival as a guest and participant.
Laos/France/Estonia | 2016 | Director - Maddie Do
In one of the strongest and most suspenseful films of the festival, Dearest Sister is the story of an impoverished young woman, Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) who travels from her remote village to the city to be the paid companion of her wealthier cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) whose European husband works for an NGO. Ana is slowly going blind and also seeing visions of the dead and forebodings about the future. Desperate to improve her situation, Nok tries to manipulate her cousin in a story that works as a potent allegory about cultural and class clashes in the developing world. This is the second film from Lao director Mattie Do, whose 2012 film Chantaly (which screened at Stranger With My Face in 2014) was made in a non-existent Lao film industry. It became the first Lao film to screen at major festivals in America and Europe and Do is the first Lao woman to direct a feature film.
Retrospective: Gaylene Preston
The festival’s past retrospectives have focused on Jennifer Lynch and Anne Turner’s Celia but this year the focus is on veteran New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston. Two of Preston’s films will screen: the quirky 1984 thriller Mr Wrong, championed by no less than Quentin Tarantino, about a young woman who buys a second-hand Jaguar but soon suspects the car is malevolent and she’s in mortal danger; and Perfect Strangers (2003), a weird genre-bending blacker-than-black comedy thriller romance starring Rachael Blake as a woman who picks up a handsome sailor in a bar (played by Sam Neill) but finds herself imprisoned with him on a deserted New Zealand island.
Watch David & Margaret's 2003 review of 'Perfect Strangers'
Gaylene Preston will attend the festival as a guest and mentor, and her work will also be the subject of a talk given by film scholar and ‘Australia’s most innovative Academic’ Deb Verhoeven.
Festival director Briony Kidd says that she chose Preston as the subject of this year’s retrospective because, “she’s got such a long history of being a maverick filmmaker in her own right and, she’s had this real longevity due to her ingenuity and changing between different genres, and between documentary and drama, and she knows how to make this stuff work in the long term.” Kidd also notes that Preston came out of the feminist era of the 70s, which produced innovative female filmmakers who really changed things. “I really liked and remembered these two particular films of hers but the interesting thing about them is that along with a lot of things that we screen it has sometimes gone under the radar in terms of being thought of as genre. The idea of us bringing them in is to look at them in another way, and say they are really genre films with a unique voice and a New Zealand perspective.”
SWMFIFF Shorts Program
You’ll get a snap look at what women in horror and genre are doing both locally and internationally by sampling the tasting plate of the Stranger With My Face shorts program. Of course they’re a mixed bag, but some of the highlights this year include:
What Happened to Her (USA, 2016, Kristy Guevara Flanagan), a 15-minute documentary about the female corpses that appear in film and television, from CSI to Twin Peaks. Footage from numerous productions is strung together with a voiceover recollection from an actress remembering the discomfort and weirdness of playing the naked dead girl.
Pendulum (UK, 2017, Lauren Cooney) is the trippy and thoughtful story of two friends travelling to India to seek spiritual solace in the impending collapse of the Cosmos.
Slapper (Australia, 2017, Luci Shroder) is set in an underclass Australia where an extremely disadvantaged young woman tries to scrape together the money for the morning-after pill before it’s too late. This is a piece of eye-watering car-crash social realism that strangely also works as a feminist horror story.
The Man Who Caught a Mermaid (Australia, 2017, Kaitlin Tinker). An old man’s obsession with catching a mermaid turns sinister when his wife begins to investigate the creature in his shed.
Click here for the full details of the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival 4 – 7 May.
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