Sandy George has been through the program with a fine-tooth comb and made her list of must-sees at the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF), which opens today.
10 Oct 2013 - 10:36 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:31 PM

Australia rules, OK
AFF festival director Amanda Duthie protested loudly when asked for her one favourite film: “Are you mad? I made a top 100 but have savaged it down to 10.” But I only want one selection, not 10, I replied. “Okay, I choose all 53 Australian titles: diverse, all genres, compelling, suitable for all ages.” She would budge no further. The Aussie fare on her original list of 10 films included The Darkside (see below); All The Mayhem, a world premiere film about skate champions and brothers Tas and Ben Pappas; and festival favourite Lynette Wallworth's directorial debut, Tender. Duthie is correct that there's a rich abundance of homegrown film, in part because AFF is a film investor, and I'm sneaking in some more besides the two below: Sophia Turkiewicz's documentary award contender Once My Mother; Jakeb Anhvu's Blush of Fruit, made in Vietnam and full of moral issues; Rowan Woods' adaptation of Peter Temple's The Broken Shore; the always inventive Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country, starring David Gulpilil; and two films from stand-out Adelaide company Closer Productions, the selling-like-hotcakes 52 Tuesdays and I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Director: Mika Mattila
Artists are thinkers and this beautiful-looking documentary examines China through the eyes of two of them, Wang Guang-yi and Liu Gang. After watching the trailer I have no doubt I want 90 minutes of the dogmatism and experience of the mature artist and the curiosity and fresh insights of the young photographer (pictured above). Cinema is littered with examples of directors making great films in countries not their own and the director of this feature-length debut divides his time between Helsinki in his homeland of Finland and Beijing, capital of one of the most potentially powerful countries on the planet.

The Darkside
Director: Warwick Thornton
Including this film is a no-brainer: it will be spooky because it's an anthology of true ghost stories; the brilliant actors retelling the stories include Deborah Mailman and Aaron Pedersen, Leah Purcell and Shari Sebbens; and it's directed by Warwick Thornton, who made Samson and Delilah and was cinematographer on The Sapphires. Its world premiere status and the presence of a lot of guests will make it feel like a very special night indeed – and the program promises “a special appearance by Thornton like you've never seen him before”. Will he be lowered onto the stage nude? Some people must know but I don't.

The Expedition to the End of the World
Director: Daniel Dencik
Too many friends and film colleagues have mentioned this documentary for it to be ignored. Set on a three-mast schooner in a breathtakingly beautiful environment – the fjords of Greenland – it tracks the behaviour and thoughts of a bunch of scientists, artists and filmmakers. In other words, highly opinionated people. Their discussions, the program notes say, include “the fate of the planet, the relation between art and science and the best ways to avoid a hungry polar bear”. This comment in the trailer makes me suspect the climate change debate will be vigorous: “Yeah, it heats up. So what?”

Habi, the Foreigner
Director: Maria Florencia Alvarez
At a press conference at the Berlinale, director Maria Florencia Alvarez said that when she was 22 years of age she asked herself many questions about identity and realised that her perspective on the world had been entirely taught to her. That sparked this debut feature about a 20-year-old who goes to Buenos Aires on an errand, then decides to immerse herself in Muslim culture rather than return to her village. One of the writers in the respectable notes that the film's representation of Islam is “refreshingly respectful and nuanced”, making it sound like a much-needed antidote to the sound grabs of a controversy-loving media.

Here Be Dragons

Director Mark Cousins
To seriously engage with a film festival that has a competition – or two – you've got to go to at least one film in competition. Many of the documentaries look intriguing – and tackle admirably serious topics – but it's not possible to look past this one because in the driver's seat is Irish critic and commentator Mark Cousins, who tantalised us with the ambitious 15-part series The Story of Film: An Odyssey on SBS. This time he applies his mesmerising confidence and eccentric style to Albania – and the trailer looks brilliant. It is not common for Australian festivals to have world premieres of non-Australian films but this one is.

Director: Reha Erdem
In the international feature competition it is Jîn that sounds irresistible. The lead character of Jîn is a plucky Kurdish teenager who slips away from the other rebels to become a deserter, exposing herself to hunger and exposure and Turkish men, as well as continuing artillery fire. The living things she prefers usually have four legs and what makes this film sound so fabulous is the quality of the engagement with those creatures. Many good things have been said about Deniz Hasgüler's performance and this filmmaker, who trained in Turkey and France, has proven himself previously with My Only Sunshine and Times and Winds.

Stranger by the Lake
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Adelaide filmgoers can get a year-round festival experience via the Mercury Cinema so it seemed only right to ask Mercury manager Mathew Kesting for his AFF hot tip. He wouldn't stop naming films and high among them was Stranger by the Lake, which was in Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it earned the Queer Palm and the award for direction. The emotionally cold murder mystery is set on a gay beat. He's also keen to see The Past, directed by Asghar Farhadi, who made A Separation. Mercury's regular Adelaide cinematheque program is presenting The Lovely Month of May, Sunless and Rome is Burning, an interview with US independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, whose work is celebrated in a retrospective.

This Ain't No Mouse Music

Directors: Chris Simon, Maureen Gosling
Even if they're ultimately stories of madness or death, destruction or drug addiction, music documentaries feel like guilty pleasures because they're full of creative people having a stimulating time making wonderful sounds. No wonder they're a staple of many film festivals. This Ain't No Mouse Music features a diverse line-up of musicians but is structured around Chris Strachwitz, who founded the modest Arhoolie Records in 1960 and is still recording an inspiring range of roots music. describes the film as “a hip-shaking stomp from Texas to New Orleans, Cajun country to Appalachia, on a passionate quest for the musical soul of America”. See you there.

The Vasectomist
Directors: Jonathan Stack, Saralena Weinfield
The Vasectomist is perhaps the best example in the AFF program of the long tradition of documentarians trying to implement social, political and other types of change. The film is a portrait of Florida urologist Dr. Doug Stein's campaign to help save the planet by reducing unwanted pregnancies and reducing the population – and in one sequence one of the directors goes under the knife. (There's no prizes for guessing which.) Now both men are part of a big team of people preparing to launch World Vasectomy Day on October 18, a day on which they hope 100 doctors in 25 countries will perform more than 1000 vasectomies. If that all sounds a bit serious don't worry: the trailer makes it clear that aspects of the film will have you in stitches. So to speak.

The Adelaide Film Festival runs from 10-20 October. Visit the
official website for more information.