Pick of the 2010 Sydney Film festival's first weekend for me was Claire McCarthy's The Waiting City, a superbly written, acted, edited, photographed and directed drama about a couple in crisis (Radha Mitchell and the ubiquitous Joel Edgerton, both excellent) as they try to finalise the adoption of a child in Calcutta.
Not every outstanding film can be in the Official Competition, now in its third year, but I found this non-competing film more impressive than the more heavily hyped, rural Queensland-set The Tree, a Franco-Australian co-production that's screening in Sydney's competition after being the closing night film at Cannes.
Not that The Tree is by any means bad. It's poetically directed by France's Julie Bertucelli and admirably performed by among others Charlotte Gainsbourg and child actor Morgana Davies. It's just that when you build a story entirely around such an obvious metaphor (invasive forces of nature, including a huge fig tree, represent Gainsbourg's dead husband) there isn't much room for surprise. For anyone who saw Scott Hicks' The Boys Are Back it might also seem over-familiar – the basic scenario is identical bar a gender switch and the rural Australian locations are not dissimilar.
Another personal highlight was Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto's mind-boggling and beyond-surreal existential comedy Symbol (expertly dissected elsewhere by Peter Galvin), the kind of out there product of an exploding-imagination that only the Japanese could produce. This is exactly the kind of wild and impossible-to-market film that justifies the existence of the festival circuit, without which it's unlikely to ever be heard of internationally. “Not for all tastes,” as they say – and in an increasingly homogenised world, thank God for that.
I imagine Haitian director Raoul Peck's competition entry Moloch Tropical isn't for all tastes either – I heard one complaint about “stilted acting.” It seemed to me, though, that this neo-Shakespearian story of the last days of an elected Haitian tyrant, going mad in his castle in the clouds as the people riot down below, was filmed in a deliberately stylised manner that emphasised the man's distance from reality. I found it both persuasive and thought-provoking.
Of course with so many films screening all day in between four and six venues simultaneously, any one person's experience of the festival will be different to another's, sometimes radically so. While I usually pick out a few highlights based on reputation or director or cast, I also leave much open to pragmatism (can I fit the session into my work schedule?), accident or vague intuition. I saw Nicolo Donato's Brotherhood on Saturday not because it was a gay Neo-Nazi drama but simply because Denmark consistently produces interesting films. Here the motivation of the lead character, an embittered ex-army sergeant, in joining a pack of fascists I found way too thin to be believable, especially after he flays them for being “losers”, though the acting made me almost forgive this initial misstep.
Some festival habitués of course like to choose one or two particular strands and see as much of these as they can – the official competition films, perhaps, or Richard Kuipers' lively-looking vampire retrospective. Or the new Australian features, or political or socially conscious documentaries – I enjoyed Just Like Us, about a group of mostly Islamic US comedians touring the Middle East to mostly ecstatic audience reaction.
Others will try to avoid all of the locally distributed titles, and many wish they only knew how to tell what's getting a release so they could give them a miss. Tip: check the final credit in the small italic print beneath each film title in the printed program guide. This is the print source. If the listed company has a familiar ring such as Hopscotch, Icon, Transmission, Madman, Palace or Hoyts, then it is almost certainly slated for local release – at the very least on DVD and usually also at the cinema. To those readers who are attending the festival, may you have some happy accidents. I'll be reporting back on more of mine as it progresses.