Sydney Film Festival
* If you arrived
here after a search, either scroll down to the film you were looking
for, or search the text for the name of the film.
These reviews are written on the run during the festival
and shortly after, by a very tired writer using odd software. Please
forgive any errors, which I will gradually correct.
My notes of all Q&As are just notes - they are
not complete transcripts, but they should be representative summaries.
The Festival is over
now, and so here is a list of my top 11 films, of the 47 features that
I saw, in accordance with the rating I gave them:
Ex: Libris - The New York Public Library
The Ancient Forest
The Marriage of Maria Braun
No Date, No Signature
The Kindergarten Teacher
Wednesday 6 June
My 20th Century, Hungary. Dir: Ildyko Enyedi Rated 3/5 (CLASSICS RESTORED)
I was particularly intrigued to see the restored version of this film
from 1988, made by the winner of last year’s Sydney Film prize and
my favourite film of the festival.
This is a whimsical, beautiful-looking and sometimes funny film, but it
doesn’t quite fulfil its promise. While it offers a view of
history from the female perspective, it doesn’t quite cover the whole
of the 20th century, and it doesn’t finish too satisfyingly. Hence the
Thursday 7 June
That Summer, Sweden, USA, Denmark. Dir: Goran Hugo Olsson Rated 3/5
This is, in a way, a “prequel” to the famous Maysles Brothers’ film
Grey Gardens. The Maysles brothers were assistants on an earlier film –
this one- that was never completed, assembled or released – until now,
in an interesting form.
The people are fascinating, of course, and beautiful.
The film has been assembled by director Olssen and his crew using films
taken by three artists: Peter Beard, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol. Because the intended film was never finished, this film is very raw -
as indicated by the almost ever-present "hair in the gate" - and it can
drag. But it is almost hypnotic in its recreation of the past, and brilliantly brings out the beauty of the eccentricity of the two Edies.
No Date, No Signature, Iran. Dir: Jahid Valilvand Rated 4.5/5
I loved this medical mystery thriller from Iran. It is one of
those films that keeps throwing up ethical dilemmas, and where a small
mistake causes unimagined consequences and huge drama. And on top of
that there are at least three magnificent performances. The sense of
place is palpable, and the pace never drops. Iranian drama just keeps
The film begins with an accident, and for reasons that will be
revealed later, the party who is at fault doesn't call the police. From
that point on, things unravel in spectacular ways. Uh-oh! Should
have gone through the proper channels!
Part forensic thriller, part ethical drama, this film is beautifully
reallised and completely engrossing. And it's not just the main
characters who make grave mistakes. Nearly every character makes a
dodgy compromise, and so could be seen as implicated in what happens in
the end. Excellent film.
The Line, Slovakia, Ukraine. Dir: Peter Bebjak Rated 3/5
Here's the first of several films at the Festival featuring a
border. This is the story of smuggling cigarettes and tobacco (and some
other things) across the border of Slovakia and Ukraine, and is
complicated by the fact that Slovakia is (in 2007) soon to join the
Schengen States of the European Union, and so the border is being
cracked down on.
We have an anti-hero who's a family man (something like James Gandolfini's character in The Sopranos),
and he has a similarly complicated life. The film paints a bleak
picture of life in those two countries, where everyone seems corrupt or
complicit, but it has its funny moments: the code name for the
contraband is "Cancer" and there are several moments when everyone
stops for a smoke and they all light up together. A gripping thriller
with a likeable anti-hero and a truly horrible villain.
The Deminer, Sweden. Dir: Hogir Hiron Rated 3/5
This documentary plays as a thriller, as "Crazy" Colonel Fakhir goes about his daily soldiering business. Except his business is
defusing mines - and not in the big suit featured in The Hurt Locker, and not using robots. No, Colonel Fakhir uses a pick and shovel and a pair of pliers.
There are many moments when I jumped in fright, and there's one scene
with a mobile phone that is one of the most tense moments I've had in
the cinema. The only thing is, there is so much footage of
Colonel Fakhir and his exploits over the years that I began to get
suspicious. Is this a hagiography? Can I believe everything I'm seeing?
Why haven't I heard about this man before? That's probably just my
overly-suspicious mind, and in any case, it is one hell of a story. The
film crew, too, have taken their lives in their hands - sometimes to a
Friday 8 June
Entrepreneur, Sweden. Dir: Virpi Suutari Rated 4/5
This is a smart and stylish documentary made by a director with a
sharp eye and a quick wit, and the knack of picking great subjects. She
has two smart women on the one side, developing their meat substitute
using innovative technology into a world-wide phenomenon.
And she has a hangdog man and his charming family on the other, driving
a traditional game meat truck from frozen town to frozen town,
supplementing income with an old fashioned and a bit decrepit
carnival. Such an effective contrast, and such an unpredictable
future for each of them. A great pair of stories, really interestingly told, and superbly photographed and edited.
This is one of the best-looking documentaries you'll see.
There was a Q&A with the director, Virpi Suutari.
Q: How did you find the entrepreneurs?
A: I met a lot of different entrepreneurs without getting the
chemistry. In a grocery store Jani happened to be there with his kids
They went to have coffee. He showed his meat products! It took 2-3
months to decide to go with them. Also I fell in love with his children
- different realities/levels. For the girls [entrepreneurs] they were at
a big startup event and had foul brown tasting samples - but they had
twinkles in their eyes and the special machine tailored to their needs
was being delivered.
Q: It's beautifully shot - to what extent was it choreographed?
A: The cinematographer has worked with me for 20 years. We used the
heavy Arriflex camera - this dictates the aesthetics – not handheld.
People begin the play themselves and their real lives. But the style is
"staged-like." But life starts to happen in front of you. We filmed for
over a year. As Hitchcock sad, for a fiction film, the director is God.
For documentary, God is the director.
Q: Can you give us an update for the businesses?
A: For the ladies, they went to Japan, have a factory in Switzerland,
and are going to the US. It tastes good now - when you put herbs with
it and have the right recipes! The other family is doing about the same.
Q: Do the children want to go to Uni?
A: They are very attached to the country and the place. The family
wants them to go to school and perhaps uni and get out of the place.
They are smart and have the entrepreneurship spirit in them too. Both
groups had the same sort of entrepreneurship spirits.
Q: How did the family think about filming things that didn't go well? Did the father object?
A: No he didn't. I always show [my subjects] the final cut. The bigger
issue was the killing of the brother by accident. A very delicate
Q: Sound design, dialogue?
A: Music is very essential always for my films. I always work closely
with the sound designer and composer. Humour: the older I get I like to
see the humour in our lives. I don't want to laugh at people in a nasty
way - always tender. In this case the music is quite epic - more than
in my other films. I've worked with the composer, Sanna Salmenkallio,
for years. The subject here is quite ordinary, so I wanted to make it
quite epic in contrast - to put the big dreams of the entrepreneurs
into the music of the film - and the suspense.
Q: What's next?
A: I am in post-production on a film about a Finnish architect: Alvar
Aalto. Next Tuesday, I'm meeting Glenn Murcutt for the next film.
Disobedience, USA. Dir: Sebastian Lelio Rated 2.5/5
For me, another disappointment, although I was very interested in the depiction of the community in which it was set. The film looks drab, and - dare I say it - the lovemaking scenes were overlong in my opinion. Others
have praised the performance of Alessandro Nivola, but I found him
decidedly one-note and totally desexed, which is a real shame. I
thought everything was so constructed, nearly everyone in the film was
passive-aggressive, and I felt cheated of the story of the most
interesting person in the whole film - Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) but
he dies in the first few minutes.
The last note I wrote about this film as I was watching it was: "Interminable."
The Marriage, Kosovo, Albania. Dir: Blerta Zeqiri Rated 4/5
From a Lesbian romance, to a clandestine gay male one, with a very
different treatment. This is an important film for Kosovo, where the
director tells us NO ONE lives an openly gay life. If this film can be
seen throughout the region, one might hope for social change.
It has this in common with another Festival film, and one which won the
Sydney Film Prize: The Heiresses (see below, on Sunday 17 June). The
film starts in an extraordinary way, with an attempt to identify
the bones of those killed in the 1999 Kosovo war. This is in a way a
poignant preparation for Anita and Bekim's forthcoming marriage
(Anita's parents are presumed dead, but missing). This is handles with
great delicacy, and Bekim is very tender throughout. But then we
realise that Bekim has a past attachment to his old friend Nol, and it
is evident what kind of attachment as soon as we see Bekim's mother's
reaction to the news that he is back in town.
I thought the film had a great sense of place: I really believed the
bar that Bekim owned, and it was hard to accept that this attractive
character was going to behave badly towards both his fiancée and his
old lover. The film moved so quickly that I had little time to make
notes, so obviously I was captivated.
There was a Q&A with the director afterwards.
Q: The film took 5 years to make, intensely personal story of desire but also going into the dark elements of history.
A: The war story came quite late into the script writing - only in the
last year. We were all so touched by the war that I had to put it into
Q: Why are most of the directors from your region (the Balkans) women - or at least of those films that have screened here?
A: I don't know, but the Balkans is a very patriarchal society and yet
there are female directors of about 50% of the films that are financed.
Male directors are going to TV and publicity because there's no money
in film in the region.
Q: Was it reputationally dangerous to act in this film?
A: Alban Ukaj [who plays Bekim] lives in Sarajevo and is a very famous
actor and is considered like Brad Pitt. It was brave of all 3 of them.
Alban has been in queer theatre too. The actor who plays Nol, his
lover [Genc Salihu], is making his debut in this film. He's a famous
musician and a judge on the Albanian The Voice! He wants to take society forward and change society.
Q: Why did it take you 5 years?
A: We worked a lot on the script. We couldn't get money before the script was ready. We cast
the main actors in 2012/13 and then worked with them on the script and
workshopped it. There was a long process of filing those sessions on our
phones. Also we didn't have a lot of funds, so we worked other jobs at
the same time.
Q: How is the film received in Kosovo?
A: Really surprisingly! In 2012 extremist groups beat up people to do
with sexuality, so we thought we might leave Kosovo - we were scared.
But in February the premiere went really well - we received no threats!
I didn't expect that and I'm so happy! Maybe the Government wants to
prove to the EU that we have the same values. This year we had The
Pride for the first time with no incidents. When the Government has the
will, you can do things.
Q: What is life like in Kosovo for LGBTIs?
A: It's getting better, but we don't even have one gay couple that lives openly. The gay community feels very happy that this film was made.
Q: Is there another film in the works?
A: Not really. I have a lot of ideas...
The Seen and the Unseen, Indonesia, The Netherlands, Australia, Qatar. Dir: Kamila Andini Rated 3/5 IN COMPETITION
Probably the most unusual and original film I saw at the
Festival. It is whimsical and poetic, with some stunning performances
two lead children. It is a tale of two worlds: the real and the spirit
worlds, which co-exist in the world of the people of Bali. Some of its
images still linger in my mind a week and 30 films later, and the
culmination of the film in a stunning dance sequence is unforgettable.
Q&A with Margaret Pomeranz introducing one of the producers, Gita Fara.
Q: What is the name of the young girl?
A: Thaly Titi Kasih.
Q: Was she a dancer?
A: Yes, she can sing, dance and they are all very talented.
Q: The director - how does she come to you? What with?
A: On the last 2 films, with a point of view above life and above
death, working with children for an innocent point of view and working
with non-professional actors. She got an idea and then got a
Cinefoundation Residency and it took a long time to develop the script.
Q: About the director...
A: The director's father is a well-known director in Indonesia. She
went to school in Melbourne. I (Gita Fara) worked with her father.
Q: The eggs?
A: For us when we are young in Indonesia, fried eggs is an easy lunch,
o your mother likes it. Some kids like only the yoke and some only the
Q: What is the relationship of the spirits that come out of the field?
A: The basic story of this film is the Balinese concept of culture - the
world consists of both the spiritual and he physical world - the Seen
and the Unseen. That's why they do offerings every day. Both worlds
must be in harmony. The kids in the paddy fields are part of the unseen
world that gets closer to Tantri after he gets sicker.
Q: How do you balance the film to be seen on a wider stage?
A: This being a 2nd feature, we have more expectations of it. So it has
to be something really important - a story to be told. We didn't want to
limit the creativity in it. It is hard to explain this to Indonesian
funders. That's why we got the money from Europe.
Q: In Bali there is the artistic tradition. When the film is shown in
Bali or other parts of Indonesia - would they all understand.
A: When this film screened in Indonesia and Bali, the young kids get
the fun of the dancing but don't all get the deeper meaning of life and
symbolism. Some get it, some don't. It is not the usual form of
cinema seen in Indonesia, but we are trying to make a different
kind of cinema.
Jirga, Australia. Dir: Benjamin Gilmour Rated 2/5 IN COMPETITION
Jirga is an Afghan Court of Tribal Elders.
I was disappointed by this film, which I felt was built on a false
premise. The film crew went through tremendous hardship to make this
film, and must have had a marvellous experience, but to what end. This
film seems naive - and so hard to believe in. How could a soldier
travel all the way to Afghanistan to apologise to the family of a man
he killed, and be so unprepared? How could he put a taxi-driver's life
in danger for his own misguided purposes? How could he go so far without
even a bottle of water or any food.? Is this man mad? He's hard
to take as a hero. And I didn't believe the ending at all. Shame.
Q&A with Nashen Moodley introducing director Benjamin Gilmour and star Sam Smith.
Q: You are in a position to understand the war in Afghanistan by making films in Afghanistan and being a paramedic.
A: (Gilmour) I am not an expert on Afghanistan and I don't understand
why there is a war, but I did an informal survey of all the Afghanis I
met, and it is clear there can be no peace in Aghanistan while there are
foreign troops in Afghanistan. A 17-year war is heading to 20 years.
Trump's just sent 4000 more troops, and Britain sent 400. We'll be
next. We [filmmakers] went in out in uniform and with humility and
respect - that might be an approach for the West.
Q: (Audience) Thanks for making one of the most beautiful and healing war movies I've ever seen.
Q: Thanks for making a film from the point of view of the Afghani
people. How did you start out, what were the challenges and
difficulties you faced?
A: (Gilmour) Sam & I did not experience division in the filmmaking
team. There were representations of all ethnicities. But they were all
united in opposing outside interference. Militant groups in Afghanistan
have increased as we increased our military presence.
A: (Smith) There were day-to-day problems, eg there might have been an
IED in a house we wanted to shoot, or the Taliban might be taking
pot-shots at me while I'm trying to act!
Q: What inspired you to make the film?
A: (Gilmour) Just the Afghan people - like the
taxidriver. The landscape looks great - especially photographed. But it
was my position against the unending cycle of conflict - my opposition
to war in general and any form of conflict, even in relationships.
Q: How flexible were you? How much planning was there?
A: (Gilmour) You have to be dynamic and responsive to your changing environment.
A: (Smith) We had to film on the fly. We had a list of shots and we got them where we could.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, USA. Dir: Gus Van Sant Rated 2.5/5
Gus Van Sant's biopic of cartoonist John Callahan, played by River
Phoenix, is a rather strange affair. Although occasionally very funny,
featuring some quite outrageous, very funny cartoons by Callahan (I
particularly liked the KKK one), I was not moved by this tale of an
alcoholic who becomes a quadriplegic, and finds his salvation in
cartooning. I thought Phoenix was strangely distant, and that Jonah
Hill stole every scene as a charismatic alcoholic counsellor. I thought
the treatment of alcoholism and the therapy group was quite naive, and
what should have been devastating was merely diverting.
On a positive note, I thought the film was tender in its treatment of
the disabled, and the group of skateboarding young kids was a
refreshing diversion from cliché. And Rooney Mara was delightful.
Saturday 9 June
Ex Libris - The New York Public Library, USA. Dir: Frederick Wiseman. Rated 5/5
This is my film of the Festival so far. A comprehensive
documentation of all aspects of the Library imaginable, and all
branches, with portraits of the dedicated staff, the fascinating
patrons and the dedication to the cause (even if occasionally disguised
This documentary restored my faith in the power of knowledge and the
ability of libraries to keep disseminating it in the digital age. Their
policy - to collect material that might be relevant or needed in 10
years, whether we know it or not - is exemplary.
It is such a treat to see the interview series the Library put on, with
Werner Herzog as the interviewer. He interviews such people as Elvis
Costello, Patti Smith, Richard Dawkins and the artist and author Edmund
de Waal. Oh, to be in New York!
The Breaker-Upperers, New Zealand. Dir: Jackie Van Beek and Madeleine Sami. Rated 3/5
This quite amusing Kiwi comedy starts at a thousand miles an hour,
but is really just a one-joke film, so it feels a little
stretched. There are lots of jokes (some recycled - "I see-food
ad eat it" and "I led the walking bus this morning" "I don't
understand" "It's where a group of children get led to school..."
(thanks Frank Drebbin)), and some amusing characters, but there is also
lots of dialogue that is garbled or maybe poorly-recorded, or maybe
it's just the accent, so I missed some of it.
The dance at the end was a bit of a clichéd ending. So there's not
quite the level of brilliance of some of its forebears in Kiwi comedy. But it is funny.
West of Sunshine, Australia. Dir: Jason Raftopolous Rated 4/5
This is my favourite Australian film of the Festival so far. A
modest film with a simple but true-to-life premise, and well-acted,
mainly as a two-hander with father and son very believable together It
is also well-shot on
fascinating locations, and well-timed. Economical and authentic, and
Whitney, USA. Dir: Kevin MacDonald Rated 3/5
I learned a lot about Whitney
Houston from this documentary - particularly her early years. But
contrasting it with the recent Elvis Presley 2-part documentary
screened on SBS TV, I realised how powerful that was in comparison. I
think this film suffered from having too much material and not
quite enough insight. But seeing her first TV appearance was priceless.
Sunday 10 June
Three Identical Strangers, UK, USA. Dir: Tim Wardle. Rated 4/5
Terrific documentary on a
constantly surprising topic. Don't read anything about this - see it
untainted. You'll have a great ride, as it veers off in unexpected
ways, including questions of ethics. Very cleverly edited, too, to maintain suspense. A great look
back at the way we were from the 1950 to the 1980s in particular.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, USA. Dir: Desirée Akhavan. Rated 3/5 IN COMPETITION
Not that impressive. Hardly
"audacious, cutting-edge or courageous." as required by the Sydney Film
Prize. An unrecognisable Jennifer Ehle features. However, there are
interesting questions about qualifications of counsellors, continuing
the ethical questions raised in Three Identical Strangers.
Pope Francis - A Man of His Time, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France. Dir: Wim Wenders. Rated 3/5
Wim Wenders directs and wrote this
interesting and quite comprehensive film about Pope Francis. He tends
towards a softer treatment of the subject, but this is no hagiography.
Difficult topics are raised - if not completely followed through on.
Francis comes across as intelligent, quick-witted, thoughtful, sincere,
open and direct. And he really can look down a camera lense! It seems the Catholic Church is in good hands.
Q: How much did the actors know of the film and how it would look?
Chocolate Oyster, Australia. Dir: Steve Jaggi. Rated 4/5
This smart and stylish Aussie feature film is cleverer even than
it first appears. Disclosure: my nephew, Adrian Powers, is one of the
editors. But I think this film is admirable in many ways.
I don't think there's yet been a film as witty and observant as this is
about certain aspects of modern life in a big city in Australia.
At first this seems to be a tedious (for people of my age)
investigation of the lives of 20-somethings in Bondi. Life is all
cafés, drinks, clubs and drugs, with a desperate search for an
idealised lifestyle, a better job, a place to live, or all of these.
But soon we realaise that the sharp eye of a cynic is guiding this film, and
what we are watching is a biting satire. In the end we are presented with the sort of bitter reality that we don't like to admit to in the smarter parts of Sydney town.
Along the way we see that we are in the hands of capable and stylish
filmmakers: the opening scene is heroic: 15 minutes without a cut -
before the opening credits. That would have taken courage. There are
flashes of (or nods to) the style of filmmakers of the French New Wave, the
Mumblecore films, the Duplass brothers' early films (this was revealed
by the Director and Cinematographer in the later Q&A). But I also
saw flashes of Woody Allen and John Cassavetes. Make no mistake, this
is an intelligent film made by a very smart team.
Q&A with Nashen Moodley introducing the Director, Cinematographer, Editors and Stars
A: Not a lot. What we did was "Retroscripting", where you have a script
but no dialogue. Actors get opposing direction. All the dialogue is
A: (Rosie Lorde?) The scene when we were both on the phone was Steve directing us over the phone. So much fun!
Q: (Me) The opening shot of the film was absolutely heroic! How much
courage did it take to hold your nerve and resist the urge to cut.
A: (Steve Jaggi) The opening shot runs almost 15 minutes. We did 3
takes but used the 1st take. It was the very first day of photography
A: (Adrian Powers) I'm glad you asked that question because I fought for 2 years to keep the shot.
A: (Steve Jaggi) I designed it and then lost confidence and Adrian fought for it.
Q: What's next for you as a director?
A: I may never direct again!
Q: Why choose to shoot in black & white?
A: It was a conscious decision. We used a digital camera with old
lenses. We wanted top strip away modern conceptions and the
distractions of modern life, pop culture and social media: the idea of
how they should live and aspiring to lives they can never live.
Q: Why call it "Chocolate Oyster"?
A: It's like Bondi Beach - the 2 most beautiful things in the world but they don't go together.
Q: What's the significance of the last scene - she is staring at the ferris wheel?
A: The Ferris wheel is like a hamster wheel.
Q: The score is beautiful.
A: (Composer) It was a collaborative process. The film was locked off,
so I was working to finished visual. Influences of the French New Wave
and Godard. Is the music in the world of the character or on the score?
The "Chocolate Oyster" theme was influenced by the French band "Nouvelle
Vague" and the singer Camille with her percussive sounds. Gypsy
Jazz was done by [my partner?] Charlie. The ending music repeated the
first music theme. Hope and despair in the one moment.
Q: There were no establishing shots.
A: Yes, on purpose. From day 1 the idea was that this would be a kind
of "time capsule" film: more like a documentary than a feature film.
Monday 11 June
Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, Spain. Dir: Gustavo Salmeron. Rated 3.5/5
A fun documentary about an eccentric mother and her family, made by one of the sons. It doesn't
look too good - it is the director's first attempt at feature
filmmaking, and his mother can't imagine who would want to watch it.
There's a rough story-line involving a search for the vertebrae of a
great aunt who was killed during the war. Much like my dear departed
half-Italian mother-in-law Maria, Juleta is an organised hoarder. She
has collected everything from tiny scissors to doll dresses to
Christmas decorations to gigantic sculptures - and she knows where
everything is - except the vertebrae! But it really captures a huge and
colourful life, which traverses some of the rougher patches of Spanish
history, including the Fascist years and the more recent economic
downturn. Always engrossing and full of love.
Transit, Germany, France. Dir: Christian Petzold. Rated 4/5
The notes on this film made it sound to me a bit like Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942), with all its talk of the fictitious "Letters of Transit" and indeed, Transit
did have echoes of that film, in more ways than one. But the conceit of
setting the film in the wartime 1940s and yet playing it out in
contemporary Marseille was a bold one - and for me it worked. It
reminded me of the John Clarke and Brian Dawe sketches where we knew
who they were supposed to be even if they didn't try to look like them.
And it kept me guessing til the end.
Beirut, USA. Dir: Brad Anderson. Rated 4/5
Jon Hamm is charismatic in this commercial thriller, set in the 1970s.
It was fun, easy to watch, and I very much liked some of the diplomatic
detail and the analysis that Jon Hamm's character makes in the early
scenes. It's relatively easy to guess the plot twist, but it is all
done so smoothly that I didn't mind. As the film was ending, I feared it
was going to come over all Stephen Spielberg, when a flag flew in the
foreground. I couldn't have been more wrong. It ends bitterly, and most appropriately, as the fighting continues.
[Censored], Australia. Dir: Sari Braithwaite. Rated 1/5
I thought this film was a
tragically-wasted opportunity to explore a fascinating archive. Instead
we have a naive look at naughty footage, and a director (also acting as
narrator, which was not a good decision) complaining about how hard
some of it was to watch, and suggesting that maybe censorship was a
Sections are marked by undated and unexplained quotes from the
"Australian Censorship Board". This is very troubling for anyone
interested in the topic. In the Q&A an academic pointed out why
this was a poor decision by the filmmakers, and trivialises the
archive. She is right.
The film apparently took 4 years to make, and an AFTRS
fellowship. Someone ought to have another go, and tell us
something we don't already know. And avoid the grammatical errors
that were sprinkled through the script. Good music score though.
There was a Q&A with Brigid Ikin introducing the director Sari Braithwaite and producer Chloe Brugale.
Q: How did you start?
A: We made a short film about David Stratton and his fight against
censorship at the Sydney Film Festival, and we found this huge archive,
prepared and digitised to be available to members of the public - made
available by the Department of Customs to the National Film and Sound
Archive. So we were confronted with censorship.
Q: How did you negotiate tensions between being a censor/ spectator/ filmmaker and censorship?
A: At various times I was each of those things. Each has their power and abuse of power.
Q: Censoring is done secretly.
A: As a filmmaker I'm controlling the image on the screen. It was important for me to be transparent about my work.
Q: (From an academic) There's a lot you left out - not just the clips.
This is a dynamic process, but you proposed the idea of the
period as homogeneous. You don't date the censorship. Why?
A: One thing I did was work with the archetypes of the language of the
censors. I felt dates would be distracting. It is not necessarily a
history - it is a creative interpretation. The transformation of
censorship happened after this archive in 1971 the laws and regualtions started allowing more permissiveness his is also an international collection.
Q: (Same academic) You have decontextualised the clips. Eg, the knife
scenes. At one particular time the Censor was concerned with gangs of
knife-wielding Italians and Greeks. You've show those scenes out of
A: Firstly, the Distributors had to agree to the cuts. Secondly, you're
absolutely right about the cuts being out of context, but you see the
repetition of the image, so you see the same thing. Also, this film can't
go into that context.
Q: What is your attitude now to censorship history now after working
with this material? It seems like at a point in the script you agree
with the taking out of violence.
A: My philosophical beliefs about freedom of expression hit up against
my visceral reaction against those clips. I didn't go from anti- to pro-
censorship. I got a deeper understanding of the issues.
Q: What proportion of the clips were down to the Distributor requiring lesser Censorship settings, eg Woodstock and the Dylan film [with the drugs].
A: That's really important. One of the things about the laws and
regulations was that they were only recommendations for 'A', 'AO' etc.
But in the end they had to make it suitable for children.
Q: The film is marvellous- viewed as an art piece. The score is
fantastic and a major work. How did you work with the Composer? This
work could tour [as a live score].
A: I am married to the Composer! He has been part of the conversation
[about this film] for years. When he got the brief to compose the music
in a month while working full-time he was up to the challenge. He brought a different emphasis to the clips.
Tuesday 12 June
One Day, Hungary. Dir: Zsofia Szilagyi. Rated 4.5/5 IN COMPETITION
I loved this look at a day in the life of a middle-class mother in today's Hungary. The director, Zsofia
Szilagyi, attended the screening and provided some interesting insights
into the film in the Q&A afterwards. She said she had a friend who
was in a similar position to the heroine of this movie, and that friend
had written her a letter outlining the events of one busy day in her
life. Szilagyi said that just reading the letter exhausted her.
Anchored by a very strong central performance by Zsofia
Szamosi as Anna, a 30-something woman with 3 children who need ferrying
about to all sorts of places, a husband with something to hide, a job
teaching Italian, and a leaking tap that she cannot ever find time to
get repaired. Oh, and the kids might have nits. Sound familiar?
All of this is filmed in the most claustrophobic way imaginable, yet
the film looks great, and has a true ring of authenticity. This is a
very significant debut feature film from Zsofia Szilagyi, and is one of quite a few strong films from female directors at the Festival.
There was a Q&A with Director Zsofia Szilagyi.
Introduction by Director: Our aim was to show on screen what we
normally don't show on screen. We won the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes
Critics Week, but for me, the most important screening was at the Lab -
a technical check: a post-production started to cry at the end.
Q: One of the strengths of the film was the claustrophobic nature of
the film - the rooms in the house, the car, etc. Did it feel like that in
A: Yes, it was shot in a real flat to make it very realistic. The
claustrophobia is also like a thriller, but we didn't plan it
like that. There was a practical reason for this flat too:
lighting could be done for day and night. That was important so that
the children didn't have to stay up late. Windows were also covered to
increase the claustrophobia. But that was also not planned.
Q: What's happening in modern-day Hungary - operating under the current regime as an artist?
A: It's difficult, because if I answer this question honestly, I
will probably not do any more films! That proves that the system is
difficult for filmmaking. But somehow we have created an island in the
"badness" that works well. I'm not a mother myself but I
experienced a lot and had the experience of financial restraints.
Q: Congratulations on an amazing film - is it cinema verité? One of the
outstanding things is that this is a European film, but her life is
exactly like mine!
A: It is interesting that you say it is a fairytale, and that was how
it was presented in Cannes in Critics Week. A fairytale with 3
elements. It is a great pleasure for me that the film is understood
outside of Hungary so well. The aim was to tell something that is universal.
The Ancient Woods, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany. Dir: Mindaugus Survila Rated 5/5
Director Mindaugus Survila was at
the Festival and explained to us in the Q&A some of the immense
difficulties in making this gorgeous film. 4 years of research and 4
years just to film, so 8 years in total!
This was one of my favourite films of the Festival, and I consider
Mindaugus Survila the Frederick Wiseman of nature. This is an
astonishingly beautiful wildlife documentary with no narration or labels
and only a few glimpses of human beings. Apart from the astonishing
closeups of various creatures, rare and not-so-rare, this film is an
extremely important reminder of the need to preserve our forests for
Q&A with the director, Mindaugus Survila.
Q: How long did it take to research and film?
A: 8years: 4 years just to film.
Q: Which creature was hardest to catch on film?
A: Hard to say. It's hard to say what's hardest. I sat in a tree for 23 hours, but I had to wait 3 years to get the moose.
Q: Can you talk about the technical aspects of the film?
A: 90% of the film was shot by special equipment; the camera had to
fly: 2 ropes of 200 metres long. The Sleeping Dormouse - sleeps 9 months
of the year. My brother is a computer programmer and he built a camera
driven by a computer to catch the mouse. An underwater camera too.
Q: Are the Lithuanian national parks in danger and is Lithuania in danger?
A: Trees take 400 years to grow, and now we have techniques that allow
us to cut down trees in 30 seconds! I'm trying to change this with this
movie - to show the animals in the forest that live in there. Not just
the trees which would be cut for money. Some of the money from the film
we will use to buy a forest to preserve it.
Q: is there any chance that you can make a book of the film. My daughter and I would like a book.
A: That would be made from trees! We have an interactive version of the film and I think that is much better.
Q: Would you come to Australia to make a film?
A: That takes time and money. I chose to tell Lithuania's story.
Q: Was the snake that stalked the mouse the same snake that was eaten by ants?
A: Different! We had about 500 hours of material that we shot.
Q: Are there particularly rare animals in the film?
A: There are only 20 pairs of the owls left. It took 8 scientific teams and 8 scouts [to shoot them].
Q: Is the snake dangerous?
A: In Lithuania (unlike Australia) we only have one snake! It is poisonous, but it won't kill you.
Matangi/ Maya/ MIA, UK, USA, Sri Lanka. Dir: Stephen Loveridge Rated 2/5
This film was rescheduled to start
15 mins later than advertised, so I ended up with a clash and had to
leave before the end. I'm led to believe that that was not a tragedy.
I saw about half of the film. It began with the director asking his
subject, the pop star known by the 3 names above, "Why are you a
problematic pop star?" She replies with a question: "Why don't you just
shut up and get a hit [record]?" She answers her own question, saying
"If I did that, I'd just get a drug overdose, because I need to express
myself." This need to express herself is reasserted over and over again
(some might say ad nauseam, or ad punctum tedium). She reveals that
before she was a pop star, before she got into music, she wanted to be
a documentary filmmaker. Her fellow student at St Martins College art
school, the director of this film, did just that. He has
excellent access to all sorts of home movies and other artifacts
because he is her best friend.
Despite all this, and despite the fascinating fact that her father was
one of the early founders a of a group affiliated with the Tamil Tigers
in Sri Lanka I found it hard to get into the documentary. It was very
fragmentary, and quite repetitious. It could also have something to do
with the fact that I'd never heard of her. But that doesn't stop me
with other films.
I'm reliably informed that the film got more interesting, politically,
but that as a documentary film, it did not improve from the mediocre,
which was my impression based on 60 minutes of the 97.
Ryuchi Sakamoto: Coda, USA, Japan. Dir: Stephen Nomura Schible Rated 4/5
I have loved the screen music of Mr Sakamoto ever since I heard his score for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Oshima, 1983). I particularly love the score for The
Last Emperor (Bertolucci, 1987) and The Revanant (Iñárritu
2015). I was only vaguely aware that Mr Sakamoto wrote other
contemporary music. After seeing this doco I now know that he is so
much more. An elegant, yet enthusiastic man, he began as part of an
avant-garde pop band, and progressed to film score writing when Oshima
offered him an acting role in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Being
young and ambitious, he replied "Only if you let me write the score." To
his astonishment, Oshima agreed. He never looked back
"Film work always comes suddenly" he says, explaining that he had to
write 45 songs for the Last Emperor in a very short time. When making The Sheltering Shy for
Bertolucci (1990), he was 40 minutes before he was due to record the
score with a full orchestra, when Bertolucci told him the introduction
required a rewrite. When Sakamoto objected, Bertolucci said: "Morricone
would do it." Sakamoto did it. He says he prefers the rewritten
introduction to the original.
There are more such fascinating revelations, including his problems
with throat cancer, and his fascination with natural sounds mixed with
music, or as music. I loved
the way that he delighted in his own compositions and discoveries by
saying: "I like this". And I liked this film very much.
Wednesday 13 June
Wajib, Palestine, France, Germany, Columbia, Norway, Qatar, UAE. Dir: Annemarie Jacir Rated 3.5/5 IN COMPETITION
This is an interesting, charming
and amusing comedy-drama, which takes us inside the domesticity of life
in modern Nazareth. A father and son must personally deliver the
invitations to the wedding of their daughter/sister. They meet all
sorts of people and encounter relentless and never-ending hospitality.
The number of cups of coffee they have to drink! The drama revolves
around the question of whether the mother, who divorced from the
father, will be able to come to the wedding. The divorce is a source of
intense embarrassment - even humiliation - to the father, who is a
greatly respected and loved school teacher who hopes for promotion to
headmaster (especially if he can invite a VIP to the wedding).
Gradually, and delightfully, we get to understand how this world works.
Such importance is given to family, custom, and saving face: it
makes one realise how easily positions can become entrenched.
All in all, an enjoyable and informative film, but I'm not sure it can be said to be "cutting-edge."
The Taste of Rice Flower, China. Dir: Pengfei Song Rated 3/5
Surely this film should be "The
Taste of Rice Flour"? The women do make a kind of pancake out of what
seems to be rice flour. In any event, this film is fascinating in many
ways, not the least of which is its setting on the border between China
and Burma, in Yunnan Province. The costumes and the cultural aspects -
particularly the dance sequence which concludes the film (reminding me
of the same sort of conclusion in The Seen and the Unseen)
are very striking. The central performances of the main characters -
mother and daughter - are excellent, and the film is unflinching in its
depiction of the difficulties cause for human beings in the midst of
China's economic obsessions.
Filmworker, USA. Dir: Tony Zierra Rated 4/5
Stanley Kubrick is my favourite
director, so I was really looking forward to this film, and I was
not disappointed. However, I was a bit dismayed at the way in which my
hero drove his capable assistant, Leon Vitale, to near death from
Nevertheless, this is a very engaging and comprehensive documentary,
with a fascinating subject. Talk about taking hero-worship to the
limit! But in doing so, Vitale made himself into a great
filmmaker himself, mastering every aspect of the art. And he did
it because he loved it. Now he will get the attention he was due. Shame
on those who did Kubrick retrospectives without consulting Vitale!
As a bonus, we learn a great deal more about the allegedly-reclusive
Kubrick and the making of many of his films. That can only be good.
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, France. Dir: Julien Faraut Rated 1/5
This was a very disappointing
documentary. I should have realised from reading the SFF
catalogue notes, which begin with the Jean-Luc Godard's quote that
"movies lie, not sports" that this would not be a proper sporting
documentary on John McEnroe.
And that it would not be "cutting-edge". Because all sports fans know
that sports DO lie: vide Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and other
cyclists accused of cheating, members of the Australian cricket team
accused of cheating, Hansie Cronje
from South Africa whose career ended because of unfair practices, and
some of the Pakistani cricketers convicted of fixing games, some tennis
players in the lower grades and various soccer players, and the East
German swim team in years gone past. The list
There were a couple of interesting documentaries in here, but this
wasn't one of them. The director has come across the instructional
sporting videos made by Gil de Kermadec for the French Institut
National du Sport et de l'Education Physique, having started out as a
tennis player, and first using more conventional shots of theoretical
tennis to illustrate how to play. But he soon decided that tennis in
practice was way different to the theory, and began to follow the
starts of tennis, resulting in a much more dynamic
product - even if he mainly concentrated on play at one end of
the court! Kermadec appears in the film, and his story is one of
the two films that I would have preferred to see. The other is a
film actually about John McEnroe. This film gestures towards it, and
then slips away.
The introduction of a psychologist to explain the way McEnroe played
(using negative energy both to gee himself up - a difficult feat - and
to put off his opponent) is really just explaining the bleeding
obvious, and at a superficial level at that. The nature of the footage
means that we only see McEnroe playing at Roland Garros, of course, so
that is limiting in itself. When the film finally gets to the
McEnroe/Lendl French Open final in 1984, we finally get to see part of
an actual tennis match between 2 people. It's quite a relief. But
before that we have to put up with such "quirkiness" as using bits of
Robert de Niro's dialogue in Raging Bull to accompany a McEnroe
tantrum. And there's a very odd use of rock guitar soundtrack and
western movie scoring. Spare me! We get a couple of gold nuggets of
information about McEnroe's parents, and his early life, but that's
about it. I wanted more from this overlong filmic essay.
All in all, another instance (see [Censored]) of a wasted opportunity in making a documentary from a wealth of fascinating archival material.
Thursday 14 June
Genesis 2.0, Switzerland. D: Christian Frei Rated 4/5
Another fabulous documentary, this
one actually addressing the Yakut people of Siberia, who are addressed
fictionally in the following film, Aga (below). First we see footage of the Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEM) conference in America. Then we
are introduced to the Siberian men who hunt for woolly mammoth tusks
underneath the tundra. The trade can be lucrative, but it is
uncomfortable, lonely and often dangerous work.
Next we meet the brother of one of the hunters. He is Semyan Gregoriev,
a Professor at North-Eastern Federal University (Siberia) and the
director of an Institute dedicated to the Woolly Mammoth, and he wants
to clone one from live cells, if he can get them.
Next, we go to Korea, where we meet Woo-Suk Hwang, the cloning pioneer,
who in 2005 cloned the first dog, and who carries on a thriving
business doing more of this today, but who at one stage had a cloud
hanging over him about some allegedly false claims about cloning. Is he
Finally, we go to China where we learn that they are trying to make a
genome record of EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD (presumably everything
living). There's a moment in the film that was amongst the most chilling
of the Festival: Swedish/ American scientist asks the spokeswoman
for the Institute about the ethical considerations of screening out
birth defects (which is one of the advances that the Institute
trumpets), the spokesperson is completely silent, smiles, and looks
blank. She has no idea what this question means!
We return to the New Siberian Islands, where the hunt for tusks is
over. Will they make it back through treacherous seas? It becomes a
This is an important story, well-told.
Aga, Bulgaria, Germany, France. Dir: Milko Lazarov Rated 3/5 IN COMPETITION
I just loved the look of this film,
and was fascinated by the clinging on to a lifestyle and culture by the
elderly couple at the centre of this film. So it was very dismaying to
hear from the filmmakers in the Q&A that followed that it was a
concoction. It wasn't based on a true family, or even on a true
culture. It is pure fiction. That information I found very disturbing,
and that's why the film didn't rate higher in my opinion.
The circumstances under which this film was made were very difficult
indeed, as we also heard in the Q&A. So it would have rated very
high on the Competition's "courageous" category.
Q&A with director Milko Lazarov and producer Veselka Kiryakova, introduced by Nashen Moodley
Q: (Nashen) What was the inspiration for the film, and what was it like shooting so far from home?
A: (Lazarov) I don't remember! Since I was a little boy I was curious
about the explorers of the North Pole. As to difficulties: financing is
usually the most difficult thing, but here the shooting in minus 30
degrees, was the most difficult thing.
Q: (Audience) The dog, Hector: how did you shoot without him looking at the camera?
A: Hector is a good actor and he slept a lot. Very easy.
Q: Were the inside the yurt shots shot in the studio?
A: There were 2 different locations but everything was shot on
location. Either on the Yana River or in a rebuilt yurt in a warehouse
near the city - again outside.
Q: Are there many families now living in the wilderness?
A: No. Not since the 1960s. There are now wooden houses there.
Q: Thanks for a wonderful film. How did you manage to film in the freezing temperatures.?
A: We shot outside 12 hours a day. There was nothing nearby - just one bus. We had good Russian clothes!
Q: This is the best film of the Festival. Were the 2 main actors professionals?
A: Some of the actors were professional. The main actor [Mikhail
Aprosimov] is in theatre in Yakutsk. The actress who plays his wife is
a local villager.
Q: How long since you started thinking to make the film and how long did it take?
A: 5 years from the idea to the end. That's the usual time for making a
film. We planned to shoot in Canada or Greenland. The last chance was
Yakutia. It was easy for us to work in Russia with the local crew. Also
the beautiful country.
Q: How did you find the 2 lead actors?
A: The 1st location visiting we did a little casting. Their way of
acting there is very different - like Chinese TV acting. In Yakutia, lots
of people make low budget films. A teacher made a film, we saw the
premiere and the woman who was in the lead role - we knew that was our
Q: What is the relationship between fiction and documentary [in this
film]? It was very ethnographic, but it moved into more dramatic
elements. The aspects of Arctic exploration - minerals, global warming.
It is also grounded with the oral storytelling and myth.
A: Just a few things related to real life. They don't live like that,
they don't hunt like that. The people argued with them, but it is really
Q: The development of the script, and the fact that these are fictional
indigenous people: it is a poetic elegy for these times
A: (Kiryakova) During script development we did a
lot of research. Our script consultant is the most famous explorer of
Inuit regions and is the inventor of "Visual Anthropology." Milko was
trying to make a collective image of northern communities.
The Insult, France, Lebanon. Dir: Ziad Douain Rated 2.5/5
Don't go to court in Lebanon!
This film was the audience favourite feature at the Festival. I
can understand why, but as a lawyer I found the events of the film all
too hard to believe. I have since spoken to other lawyers, who had the
same problems with the film that I did. But someone told me that a
Lebanese acquaintance has asserted that this is what court is like in
Lebanon. If so, I repeat: Don't go to court in Lebanon!
A similar scenario was much more effectively, and less melodramatically, dealt with in No Date, No Signature
(see above, on Thursday 7 June) with more drama and fewer histrionics.
In the film's introduction the director explained that the screenplay
was based on an actual incident that happened to him and the other
screenwriter. But they have teased that out and exaggerated it to
It does all serve to illustrate the bigger political points, and that's
admirable, but when the defence lawyer turned out to be the father of
the plaintiff's lawyer, that really underlined the melodramatic
excesses employed here. I had trouble working out whether the trial
was criminal or civil: at first it seemed obviously civil, but when the
result involved the concept of "guilty" or "not guilty," I became
unsure. It seemed to me that the case should have been all over on day
one when it was shown that each injury suffered was not "directly
related" to the act of the defendant. That legal concept was
well-spelled out early on in the film, so I was sure that would be the
result. It wasn't. The court case itself was ludicrous in my view
and several people should have been arrested for being in contempt of
court. I was surprised to see in the credits that there was a legal consultant.
For me, No Date, No Signature did what this film was trying to do, but in a more believable way. This seemed to be more like an episode of Boston Legal, but in Lebanon.
The Wife, Sweden, UK. Dir: Bjorn Runge Rated 1/5
I hated this film. Glenn Close was
quite good in it but she's such a strong character in most of her
movies, she made it hard to believe her character hid her talent from
the world for decades.
I found it impossible to believe that such concealment would be
possible for all those years, and I could not accept Jonathan Pryce as
a lothario who was flirting with women young enough to be his
grandchildren. I could not accept that he forgot the name of one of his
main characters. I did not buy Max Irons' performance as the
disaffected writer son who gets stoned immediately before a Nobel Prize
ceremony. This was such a cliché.
I have not read the book, but I am told that there are significant
differences, in fact and in tone. It was such an interesting idea - the
undervaluing of women as authors throughout the 1950s and 60s. I wish it had been better realised.
Friday 15 June
Bisbee '17, USA. Dir: Robert Greene Rated 4/5
This was, to me the most surprising
film of the Festival. On paper it was one of those that said to me -
come on, you can miss this. It's better to sleep in. But I didn't, and
I'm so glad. This is a documentary clearly influenced
by Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (SFF
2013), which is one of the films that I most admire in contemporary
filmmaking. It's a film that sets out to change society, and to change
The filmmakers take as their starting point the 100th anniversary of a
shameful incident in the town of Bisbee - the "deportation" of a group
of striking mineworkers and their sympathisers, by townspeople who
feared the influence of the "Wobblies" (the IWW, the Industrial Workers
of the World, a labour union) who helped the mineworkers assert their
rights in 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona.
The film follows the reenactment of the incident, organised by the
people of this once-prosperous copper mining town. Bisbee was once the
richest town in Arizona. It is now the poorest. But the people decided
to mark the centenary of the deportation by facing up to it, and the
filmmakers follow the preparations, at the same time interspersing the
history. The film plays as a cross between The Act of Killing and Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955).
For me, the making of the cattle cars by woodworkers and home handymen
was the most poignant thing, and then when the re-enactors enter those
cars with townspeople and neighbours playing the role of their
arrestors, shouting and prodding, the film, and the reenactment,
becomes incredibly important.
The Kindergarten Teacher, USA. Dir: Sara Colangelo Rated 4.5/5
This is the way to make a film about someone who steals another's literary work (see The Wife, above, on Thurs 14 June)). Maggie
Gyllenhaal, always an intelligent actor, takes on a very challenging
role: the role of a well-meaning, but ultimately deluded educator. She
basically has to play a failed character, one who hoped to achieve more
both in her career, and with her husband and children. And then she
sees a chance to help someone whom she perceives to be a genius, and
she takes it all too far and too seriously. Her task is basically
play someone dumber than she is: this reminds me of Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honour
(Huston, 1985). But this is more subtle. She's smart, but she's
confronted by circumstances beyond her ken, but which suits her vanity.
This leads to a crisis that is unbearably sad. Best of all, the
filmmakers know when to stop, and are smart enough to leave us with a
set of questions to ponder over. Excellent storytelling.
Daughter of Mine, Italy, Germany, Switzerland. Dir: Laura Bispuri Rated 4/5
Another strong film by a female director. Some have found the performances too histrionic,
but I'm willing to allow latitude. We have a most unusual little girl
as one of the 3 central women. The camera loves her, and she seems born
to it. The older one is Valeria Golino, and it is a shock to see her as
an older woman. The middle woman is the most problematic. Alba
Rohrwacher plays a free spirit who has lost control, and we have no
clues as to why. She's both attractive and repellent, and it is hard to
accept that her biological daughter, whom she has given up, is more
drawn to her than she is to the adoptive mother who loves her. Or
rather, it is easy to see the attraction, but it is hard to accept that
it continues. But then who am I to judge what is or isn't true
here? In any case, there are some amazing images in this film,
and this is a director who really trusts in the talent of her actors.
There was a Q&A with the director, Laura Bispuri, with Jason Di Rosso moderating, and the director also said a few words to introduce the film.
Intro: The film is from the 3 points of view of the 3 protagonists. I hope you love each of them as much as I do.
Q: The idea of Sardinia as a location. Your previous film as partly set in Albania.
A: Sardinia was a great discovery. The way I work is writing the script
and then moving to the place where the movie is set - I do the 1st
draft, go to the place and then do another draft. 11 times! Sardinia is
a choice by instinct and then much reflection. Sardinia is a mothers'
field. The strength of mothers. Strong identity but I kept asking
what's new outside the island and it continues to question its identity
- which also applies to the women in the film.
Q: The husband in the film is not a typical male for Italians.
A Since I started, my focus was merely on the women. I also believe it
is important to think about women because they are not much on film.
Jason Di Rosso: Sardinia is associated with men, eg Padre Padrone.
A: And in the film men were in the background because it was a film
about maternity. The male figure represents a masculinity not much seen
in Italy: a nice, sweet man who loves his daughter and wife. Umberto
goes through the same journey at the beginning of the film that Tina
goes through at the end.
Q: The use of the hand-held camera the whole way through.
A: The movie was shot in long sequences. It was the most complicaed
thing in the movie, because we had 3 points of view. There was very
complicated blocking and sometimes the POV changes from one character
to another in a scene. When the editor saw the film she said it was
already edited. Through this language I can be more naturalistic. For
me, this is the best way to talk about space. Sequence plan is not easy
to get into the film but hard to get out.
Q: Thank you for a beautiful film. As a redhead it was good to see
another redhead. The scenes with such a young actress - a lot of them
were confronting. How did you keep her safe and how did you achieve
such close relationships?
A: The young girl [Sara Casu, who plays Vittoria] we found after
looking for 8 months. She's Italian. I asked Sara very complicated
things because we were shooting with a complicated sequence plan. Also
from an emotional POV I asked a lot from her. She always responded with
a nice effort. I can tell you a particular anecdote. The scene in which
Angelica and Vittoria are dancing and singing. It wasn't in the script.
It was created when we interviewed Sara. I wanted to use that song in a
different scene and I had to see if Sara was up to the movie. We went
to Angelica's place, I played the song and I asked Sara to talk through
her eyes a double feeling to Angelica of attraction and replsion
and I saw this while Alba [who plays Angelica] was dancing. When I gave
this to my producers they asked me to insert it in the movie. I was a
bit sceptical of another dancing and singing scene I and the 3 main
characters were confident and equal and worked well together.
Yellow is Forbidden, China, New Zealand. Dir: Pietra Brettkelly Rated 3.5/5
The director introduced the film,
and it seems that she is a force of nature to equal, if not surpass,
her subject. It is no wonder she gets the access she does. You couldn't
say no to her: she's turn up in your loungeroom in a minute to ask why!
I had not heard of Guo Pei, the fashion designer, before this film, but
I knew of the gold dress she designed for Rihanna in 2015. Her fashion
is more over-the-top than any I have seen, and so it is a challenge to
think of it in Western terms. But it is fascinating to learn of her
attempts to crack the Paris Haute Couture scene.
All Guo Pei's efforts must take a tremendous amount of money, though
the source of this is not really explored in the film, leaving many
questions. We do see a scene where wealthy Chinese women are invited to
become VIP members of some sort of club which entitles you to
heaven-know-what. You must spend something like $750,000 to qualify.
Her designs are expensive and time-consuming to make, and we see some
interesting scenes of wages negotiations between Guo Pei and a head
seamstress. You get the impression Guo Pei will win, but we
aren't told. We also aren't told about whether the Chinese Government
is providing any funds, though the director hinted at this in the later
It'll be interesting to see if she continues to thrive and becomes a
true Paris Haute Couturier. She has the drive and the ideas, but does
she have the taste to endure?
There was a Q&A with the director, Pietra Brettkelly, who wore a gown made for her by Guo Pei!
Q: What drew you to fashion given your other films have been set in or dealt with Afghanistan and Africa etc?
A: This is my 5th feature film. All of my films are about isolation,
and that's not always a bad thing. It can be creative too. I like to go
with just my DOP and drop into another culture. I'm interested in
groups of people and creativity. I heard about the heels of the shoes
she designs, and then the Rihanna thing happened and then I rang her
[Guo Pei] and they said not to come. But we spoke to her for an hour
and then she agreed. We just began. She's an incredibly creative and
Q: Was it easy to get into the Haute Couture world?
A: No. The President was easy, but other people were kind of buttoned
down. And the aristocracy of the French fashion world. I found it
extraordinary that no one knew who she was: Kenzo, the Mayor of Paris,
and the Executive Director of [something]. But the President was really
on her side - fashion is not just about fashion - it is about your
craft and your passion.
Q: How did the first conversation you had with her go? Where did the story come from?
A: My process is to go and start filming. I research as I go. I believe
in my ability to cast. I have the same spiel for everyone: I'll be
around for God knows how long. You'll hate me and we'll laugh a lot and
you'll need to open up to me. They usually say yes right away. I didn't
know she'd do her big Paris collection or that she'd be accepted into
the Haute Couture Association either and so it could have been a short
We don't use translators, fixers, minders etc. We just rock up. Guo Pei
and I used WeChat which translates. And she had some people around that
translated. But in some cases I didn't know what was said until I got a
budget for the translation, that I knew what it was about.
Q: Tell me about her husband and funding and her daughter.
A: Elder daughter studies at South Carolina Art [something] Academy and
has done a year. [Husband] Jack's money comes from a Taiwanese Textiles
company but that wouldn't fund all of Guo Pei's business. There
was I believe some Government support for her. It costs 2 million
Euros per sow, and she must do 2 shows a year. She has a lot of
clients, but I never got to the bottom of it.
Q: The "Yellow is Forbidden" name? I once wore yellow when I went into
my local Chinese camera shop and he said, "Yellow is for the Emperor."
A: I love intriguing titles that come from the content. When we
interviewed Guo Pei's mother and she said "Yellow is forbidden" - it is
still only for the Emperor and especially as there is no Emperor any
more. But Guo Pei uses it [yellow] all the time. This is also an
indication of here China is at in the commercial world.
Day 1 we filmed Guo Pei in her house and she pulled out her
kaleidoscope and said, "This is my happy place" and I said to my DOP:
"That's what this film is about: the creative mind." We bought a
chandelier and dismantled it and put it before the lense to indicate
the nature of the creative mind of Guo Pei.
Q: Did you feel uncomfortable being a white woman in that space?
A: No, never in my career. I've been the first to interview Gaddafi,
I've been in Afghanistan and on an oil tanker. Even in my own country
it is not straightforward. You just get on with it. And Guo Pei never ever
stopped me. When we were outside, Jake [Bryant, cinematographer] and I
would pretend we were a couple filming. I want to tell stories. I'm not
going to stop.
Saturday 16 June
Kusama - Infinity, USA. Dir: Heather Lenz. Rated 4.5/5
"No matter how I suffer for my art, I will have no regrets." - Yayoi Kusama
Yet another fascinating,
comprehensive and sensitive documentary, this one on Yayoi Kusama, the
contemporary artist best known for her polka dot works. I was surprised
to learn that she is the most popular living contemporary artists based
on museum visits to her exhibitions. Her current show "Infinite
Mirrors" is constantly sold out as it tours the world. But her journey
has been fraught with difficulty, and sexist and racial prejudice.
That, combined with a cruel mother (who denied her the right to paint,
as she wanted her to marry into money), and a philandering father that
she was made to spy on by her mother, and you have a recipe for
depression and mental illness, even in this confident, brilliant and
feisty woman. Nevertheless she has survived to triumph, found a way to
live with mental illness, and declares that: "I want to live forever".
An inspiring woman, who now has a film that is does due justice to her talent.
Leave No Trace, USA. Dir: Debra Granik. Rated 4/5 IN COMPETITION
This is a beautifully shot film by the director of the fabulous Winter's Bone
(SFF 2010). The performances are very good, especially Ben Foster as
Will, the father of Tom (Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie), a young and
capable girl. The scenes together in the woods are wonderful as the
filmmakers create a kind of fantasy world in which it is possible to
co-exist with nature, touching only lightly on the land. But as Tom is
clearly growing up, we know that this seemingly-idyllic situation will
not last. And indeed, reality comes crashing in on them.
The Marriage of Maria Braun, Germany. Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Rated 5/5
This is fairly dealt with by the filmmakers, so that there are no
villains, only people trying to do their job. Slowly we see how
impossible this life is to continue. It's a tale well-told.
However, I had a few problems with the performance of young Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie). She was sensitive, yes, but also a bit monotonous in vocal tone,
and sometimes hard to hear - unlike Ben Foster who was crystal clear. I
know she's a teenager, but she's not supposed to be the sullen mumbling
type. And I was really uncomfortable from the beginning with a father
involving his daughter in his own private war against the world.
Luckily the scenes where they almost freeze addressed my concerns about
the likelihood of any of this working for long. And where, in that rainforest, were the bugs and leeches?!
The same sort of thing didn't work out for Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic (SFF 2016) either.
- CLASSICS RESTORED
Such a clever, witty and perceptive
piece of work. There is more feminism here than in many of the Festival
films, even in something like My 20th Century (SFF 2018), another film in the Classics Restored section of the festival.
The film was presented by the Goethe Foundation, and they had brought
over Juliane Lorenz, who edited the film and who lived with Fassbinder
for the last 7 years of his life. That was a wonderful, history
making experience, and so it is even more vexing to note that there was
a problem (I believe) with the film's projection. It was in the right
aspect ratio, but the curtains were not fully open. As a result,
this work of genius did not appear as the director intended. The right
and left edges of the screen were not visible, and I could not read all
the credits - which, in Fassbinder, are HUGE. This is a serious
error on someone's part.
No one but me seemed to notice this. I will investigate.
Sunday 17 June
The Heiresses, Paraguay, Germany, Brazil, Uruguay, Norway, France. Dir: Marcelo Martinessi Rated 4.5/5
This, in my opinion, should win the Sydney Film Prize (and it did!). Blakkklansman
comes close, in my view, but this film sets out to redress the fact
that there is
no history of filmmaking in Paraguay. And it manages to supply
one, whilst at the same time tackling the subject of same-sex love and
devotion. So there we have the elements of "audacious, cutting-edge or courageous." as required by the Sydney Film
It is unusual to find a drama about older women these days, and when we
do find them, they often come from South or Central America. Here we
see a woman who has given up, having never had to take responsibility
for herself, first because she was rich and came from Old Money, still
living in the house she was born in, and second because she is in a
relationship where she is totally cared-for and able to control her
environment so that she is never challenged.
But all that changes for Chela when her long-term lover, Chiquita is
gaoled over a bad debt. That in itself is fascinating, as we learned
from the film and the Q&A: banks no longer can have their debtors
gaoled for defaulting on a loan, so they force them to sign promissory
notes, and then have them charged with fraud, presumably for
non-disclosure of certain facts. Th filmmaker filmed in a real gaol,
and went to considerable trouble to make the inmates comfortable with
the camera being there.
This film is ambitious and intelligent, and ultimately very moving. It is a deserved winner of the Sydney Film
I hope its success contributes to its acceptance in its home country,
and that it manages to change attitudes, and perhaps even change the
There was a Q&A, moderated by Jason Di Rosso with the director, Marcelo Martinessi. Her also gave a few words of introduction to the film:
Intro: Paraguay never had a cinema law or film institute or
cinemathèque, so I'm hoping for more Paraguayan cinema. This film was
co-produced with several countries funding. It comes from a country
without a film history - I wanted to create a dialogue with that
history and all those years of darkness.
Q: (Di Rosso) Chena is Ana Brun?
A: This is her fist film. She's a lawyer, she did theatre about 15
years ago and someone who read the script thought of her. I met her and
liked the way she moved. I asked my Mum (Paraguay is a tiny society).
She said I don't remember much about her, but I remember her eyes.
Ana Brun is a pseudonym and she changed her name because Paraguay is a
very conservative society and she was afraid to play Ana. Also the film
was discussed [negatively] in Parliament and it was the first film from
Paraguay to go to Berlin.
Q: What about the Tray and its symbolism?
A: The tray portrays the symbolism of her life. It gives her pleasure
and the control. The first thing they teach the new maid is how the
tray must be laid out.
Q: Thanks for your understanding of women - especially in a film made by a man. Tell us more about the prison.
A: It is complicated to show a prison in Paraguay. We joined the Goethe
Institut and did a workshop there - that made us more comfortable to
film there. You never go to prison if you have money. Also to create
the house that is like a prison and a prison that is free. The prison
of a social class or of a relationship.
Q: Has this fall from wealth happened generally in Paraguay?
A: It does happen. There's the crisis in Argentina in 2001.
The 2 women who come for the orchids are "new money" - there's a lot of
corruption in Paraguay. The money is with the drug dealers and the
government officials - the money has gone somewhere else.
Q: Why does a debt result in a prison sentence?
A: In Paraguay, if you have a debt you used to go to prison, and now
[as a result of legislation] not. Now the banks make you sign
promissory notes, so they get you for fraud and you go to prison. These
women would normally be protected by their social position, but no
Q: Where did you draw your inspiration for this film?
A: I came from short films. When I came to this film I drew from sounds. When I was a child I'd
go with my mother to the hairdresser and listen to all the
gossiping. Other writers have talked of gossiping as the main way of
communicating [for some people]. For writers, when you write, it is
easier to think of people you know. It's easier. I have used people I
know in this film. The Piquita character is horrible on paper, but on
film you love her. The actress is very popular now. T-Shirts say, "It's
going to be a great funeral."
Q: The main character having no voice was so brilliant. We could make up our own minds about her. You let us make the decisions.
A: This is the way I experience the world. People never say who they
are, what they want. So this is how I wrote the script. People never
say how they feel. It comes out in other ways.
Q: Given the reaction to the Lesbian relationship when you showed it to
Parliament, did you worry that some of the other issues the film raises
might be overlooked?
A: You are right. The film had many other layers and these are seen outside
Paraguay. I made a film with a lot of modesty, discretion - not for the
audience - but because in Paraguay, even the gay couples are so
discreet, they have incorporated homophobia into their language; eg, in the film: "You know, the girl who looks like a boy."
BlacKkKlansman, USA. Dir: Spike Lee Rated 4.5/5
This film is a knockout! So ambitious! Such fun! So important!
Spike Lee is clearly a director working at the height of his
Here he has managed to make multiple films within the one film. He's
made a thriller, a social problem/ message film, a documentary, a film
history, a blaxploitation film, a love story, a comedy and a musical.
He has engaging characters and a great dance sequence. He has employed
inventive camera-work and a fast pace to make a piece of pure and
joyful cinema with a sting in the tail and more stings throughout, just
to keep it real. And it IS real (or at least the basic story is), based
on the true story of an undercover detective who joins the KKK -
and he's black! Unbelievable but true. And great filmmaking. Music by
The Guilty, Denmark. Dir: Gustav Moller Rated 4.5/5
Have the SFF programmers saved all the best films for the last day? This is another great film, reminiscent of Steven Knight's Locke (SFF 2014), a virtual one-hander like The Guilty. It's a tour de force performance by Jacob Cedergren
inventive camerawork by director Gustav Moller and his team. If some of
the twists were guessable, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the film or lessen the thrills. A cautionary tale about the dangers of assumption. Another film containing apologies
And an ending that makes you think there's another film there
about Asger's trial the next morning. Who is he calling in the final
scene? I hope it's his attorney!
Bad Reputation, USA. Dir: Kevin Kerslake Rated 3/5
This biopic of Joan Jett was too much of a good thing. As I was with Whitney (see above on Sat 9 June), I was moderately interested Joan Jett, having already seen the film about her first band The Runaways
(Sigismondi, 2010). But as with Whitney, I didn't need to know this
much. However, I learned a lot about what a strong and talented
woman Joan is, and also about the music industry in America. But I was
never a fan of her music, and I still am not.
END OF FESTIVAL