This was Sydney Film Festival artistic director Clare Stewart's last year, following five years at the helm. I don't like to pass comment on her stewardship – as her immediate predecessor, I can hardly claim to be disinterested, having generally preferred to limit my observations to individual films. For all that, it's hard to resist observing that 2011 was quite a high to go out on. Due to work commitments and being overseas for part of the period, I only managed to see a paltry 10 or so films but only one disappointed (the Russian road movie Silent Souls), an impressive batting average, and I heard nothing but praise and enthusiasm from festival regulars I bumped into.
Initiatives like the telemovie marathon at the AFTRS cinema (Shane Meadows's This is England '86 and the German three-parter Dreileben) are exactly what festivals everywhere need to be doing to stay relevant to audiences, given that long-form TV has taken over from Hollywood cinema as a medium for mature, complex screen drama. I had negotiations with BBC Worldwide to this end during my time at SFF, though sadly for reasons too complex to go into this didn't reach fruition.
The evening with ABC TV critics David Stratton (a former SFF director, as younger cineastes seem to forget) and Margaret Pomeranz at Sydney Town Hall, marking their 25th anniversary reviewing films on television, was the kind of populist programming that couldn't fail to also be entertaining. It also went a long way to restoring some prominence and pizazz to the annual Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture, which the festival has neglected at times.
Another welcome initiative was the Jafar Panahi retrospective, presented by former Brisbane International Film Festival director and Iranian cinema specialist Anne Demy-Geroe, along with the Douglas Sirk retrospective (a nice contrast) and the decision to invite Variety critic Richard Kuipers to program the Freak Me Out horror strand.
Among the programming coups were Tabloid (a new Errol Morris documentary is always an event) and the new Jane Eyre, which turned out to be a triumph – as bleakly Gothic and windswept as required, with Mia Wasikowska a magnetically intense and properly young-looking Jane, and Michael Fassbender suitably glowering as Rochester. Having Wasikowska as a guest was a plus, as was the winsomely charming Miranda July, here with The Future, her more-than-up-to-snuff follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know.
While purists will always complain about films destined for commercial release being on the program, nearly all major festivals, from Cannes, Berlin and Toronto down, gain much of their cachet from screening films that will later turn up in cinemas. Scrub them from the program and you reduce the event to a small club of cineastes who quickly discover that festivals also need bigger films in order to attract the financial support needed to run even a smaller event.
The festival's next director – yet to be interviewed, let alone appointed – will inherit a far more financially sturdy, confident and popular festival than the spindly-legged, problem-ravaged organisation this writer inherited between 2004-06, when internal projections suggested a total collapse of the festival in only three years unless drastic action was taken. A large part of why that collapse never occurred was the pledge of annual festival prize money in 2006 by Peter Hall, the indefatigably enthusiastic head of ethical investment company Hunter Hall (whose prize sponsorship was taken over this year by iShares). Hall's display of confidence helped to trigger a huge boost in NSW government funding early in Stewart's term. The result is an event that has regained its sense of occasion and excitement.
The festival's next director and his or her board are nonetheless faced with some pressing questions. Firstly, the state has seen a change of government since the former Labour administration upped its funding of the SFF and other NSW events (including the Sydney Festival and the new Vivid winter arts festival). That level of funding needs to be maintained.
Secondly, the festival's programming structure, with its emotional 'pathways' (Take Me on a Journey, Love Me, etc) could bear another look. Some of these strands work better than others. What does Take Me on a Journey tell its prospective audience: that the film is a road movie, or that it takes the viewer on an emotional journey? The latter is true of all films. What was Jia Zhangke's hauntingly meditative doco on Shanghai past and present, I Wish I Knew, doing here, for instance? While the new programming structure has not stopped ticket sales from growing, it has, after three years, started to look predictable. Every year the same headings.
A third question needs to be asked: Why the inclusion in the official competition of films that have already won major festival prizes elsewhere? Since this year's winner, the Iranian film, A Separation (pictured), won the Berlinale's top prize in February, how does the addition of an award from a smaller festival raise its standing in the international film world and bring attention to the SFF?
The thinking behind the festival competition is to raise the profile and prestige of the Sydney event. This in turn brings much-needed leverage in negotiating for in-demand titles on the packed international circuit. In terms of boosting the profiles of both deserving films and the festival, it surely makes greater sense to award a title that will gain not just from the prize money, but also the prestige and attention.
The film world is forever changing. No festival can ever afford to stand still. Good luck to the next incumbent!
Lynden Barber was the artistic director of the 2005 and 2006 Sydney Film Festival.
2011 Sydney Film Festival award winners
Writer/director: Asghar Farhadi
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FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize
Life in Movement
Writer/directors: Sophie Hyde, Bryan Mason
Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films
Best Live Action Short
Writer/director: Anthony Maras
Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director
Writer/director: Craig Irvin
Yoram Gross Animation Award
Writer/directors: Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell
CRC (Community Relations Commission) Award
Writer/director: Pauline Chan
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