The former Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival explains his best plan of attack for taking on the event's bumper program.
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31 May 2012 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:30 PM

We here at SBS recognise the syndrome. You've had the Sydney Film Festival catalogue or home page open for the last two weeks. Opening night (Wednesday June 6) is fast approaching, some of the sessions are selling out, yet every time you decide to make a few bookings, you just don't know where to begin. You don't have time to get to everything and you have to make some tough decisions.

Okay, if you're, say, a Wes Anderson or a Bob Marley fan, some decisions are obvious (with the former's latest film and a doco about the latter in the program). The same goes for horror aficionados – the festival's Freak Me Out section is aimed at you. But given the program notes make all the films sound like essential viewing, how do you tell whether the “suspenseful social-realist drama” from Iran is more of a must-see than the “beguiling love story set in contemporary Portugal and colonial Africa?”

To that end, SBS presents a brief consumer guide to picking films at the Sydney Film Festival with a few elementary pieces of advice along with a few personal tips. Note: quite a few films tick several of the boxes below, making them obvious ones to look for – but bear in mind that these are often more likely to be those scheduled for commercial release after the festival.

• Go for the offbeat, items that sound fresh, different or bizarre or come from countries whose cinema you're unfamiliar with. The greatest benefit of film festivals is their exposure of work the public doesn't usually get to see. This year the five-part Indian crime saga The Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 and 2 arouses my curiosity because it's so different to anything usually in the program of this or any other film festival. The same goes for Korean school-bullying animation, The King of Pigs. I've seen plenty of Korean features but never an animation.

• Check out prize winners from major festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sundance. This year's program is particularly well-studded with garlanded titles, including Barbara (Berlin best director for Christian Petzold); Polisse (Jury prize from last year's Cannes); Tabu (two prizes at Berlin); Amour (just announced winner of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or for Michael Haneke); Caesar Must Die (Berlin Golden Bear winner for veterans the Taviani Brothers), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner), and Faust (Venice Golden Lion for Alexander Sokurov).

• Emerging directors: the younger filmmakers not yet considered art cinema royalty but whose talent has been clearly marked out in their first films. Australia's Cate Shortland (Lore) and Tony Krawitz (Dead Europe), and Britain's Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights) are examples this year.

• Select at the very least a few titles screening in the official competition. The SFF gives a prize to the film considered by an international jury to be “the most courageous, audacious and cutting edge,” with 12 titles competing. The festival is basically giving these titles a privileged status, suggesting they are all worthy of attention for doing something bold or interesting with cinema language and/or content. Will they live up to this claim? It's got to be worth taking a chance to find out.

• Mark all the titles not destined for local release – you probably won't get another chance to see them on the big screen. Even seasoned festival-goers often seem baffled about how anyone could possibly know this, but it's simple and here's how: look at the last little bit of the small print beneath the film's title in the catalogue or online. The ones already earmarked for Australian release have a distributor clearly listed. Those yet to sell to an Australian distributor simply list the company responsible for “world sales” or list a production company. Now that's not to say that at some point the film won't be bought up for release, possibly as a result of a positive reception from the festival audience. But it's a virtual certainty that many of the films with a listed distributor will get released in Australia in some form – mostly through cinema, some direct to DVD or TV.

• Talk to people in queues. If someone raves about a film they saw last night, there's a chance its second screening has yet to happen. While festivals like to draw attention to the sessions selling fast or sold out already (it encourages people to make their bookings), the fact is that most sessions do not sell out and there's often a good chance there are seats left.

• The SBS website will also be running full-length reviews of a number of films, so keep returning for views and information. SBS film critics have already started reviewing films or laying out some of the likely highlights on other pages, viz SBS Documentaries or have reviewed them when they appeared at bigger international festivals. (This writer will be publishing a regular blog during the festival with tips, ideas, observations and reviews-in-brief.)

• Mark out a day or evening (according to what fits with your schedule) and see two or three films at random. This is how you make discoveries. Also see as many films as you can possibly fit into your schedule and bank balance. Festivals work best when you immerse yourself.

• A no-brainer this, but look for major directors. Their films are at least likely to be interesting. This year's examples include Once Upon a Time in Anatolia from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (now rightly acknowledged as a major figure in world cinema), Michael Haneke's Amour and Alexander Sokurov's Faust. Note the Bertolucci retrospective gives the chance to see some great films from this Italian director on the big screen (though oddly not his masterpiece The Conformist, presumably due to print availability issues). Focus on the earlier work.

• I've seen a handful of the films already and offer a few passing observations (all except Final Whistle have a local distributor attached):

Bully
Observational US doco on school bullying, focusing on its victims. Thought-provoking, angering and at times very moving.

Polisse
Admirably dynamic French police drama about the work of a child protection unit.

Final Whistle

Terrific example of the new aesthetic emerging from Iranian cinema: relatively fast-paced, with mobile camera-work and vivid feeling for life in the streets and an awareness of class issues.

Safety Not Guaranteed
Ho-hum US independent about journos stalking a guy who claims to have invented a time machine.

A Royal Affair
A vigorous Danish costume drama with outstanding performances. (Mads Mikkelsen picked up best actor at Berlin and the film won best screenplay.)

Where Do We Go Now?
This highly energetic, often wittily inventive film looks at war and masculinity from a distinctively female perspective.

Pictured: Alps