Over the weekend, the 59th annual Sydney Film Festival wrapped things up with an excellent closing night film and party at the beautiful State Theatre. One of my favourite things about the festival is its inclusion of the classic venue - it's a joy to see a film as they were watched many decades ago: in massive rooms like this with thousands of seats. And given the context, much like back in those days, every screening was an event in itself.
In the 12 days prior to closing night, the festival ran bigger, better and brighter than ever. Attendance was up on previous years, and there was a general aura of excitement in the year as they took a page out the books of other festivals: they created a hub.
Located at Lower Town Hall, the Sydney Film Festival Hub was a free entry venue with a photographic exhibition, a bookstore, a bar, live concerts, talks, Q&As and free screenings. It was a place that the industry could mix with the public over a beer, whether they were attending a screening that night or not. I found it gave the festival something it had been missing in previous years and will without a doubt enhance the international profile of the festival into one of the world’s most relevant, diverse and exciting events on the annual film lover's calendar.
The end of the Sydney Film Festival also brings with it an end to the May/June period of excitement in the city - though the Biennale is not far behind. January has a lot of competition in these winter months with Vivid and the Film Festival lighting the city up in more ways than one, flooding the streets with tourists and locals. I for one am already looking forward to the 60th Film Festival. A big congratulations to festival director Nashen Moodley’s inaugural season and here's anticipating an even bigger, better year for 2013… no pressure or anything.
Here now, over two articles, is a brief look back at the films I caught during the duration of the festival. As always, I wish I could have seen more - but regretfully there are only so many hours in the day (and so much time to write about it all!)
OPENING NIGHT: Not Suitable for Children.
Faced with the prospect of losing the ability to father children, we join Jonah (Ryan Kwanten) on his quest to procreate before time runs out. The scenario is a bit contrived, sure, but it’s hard not to enjoy the road he goes down and have a few laughs along the way. The script is sound, the music is fantastic (and we have Jono Ma of the Lost Valentinos, in part, to thank for that) and the acting is as good as any Australian comedic film in memory. Both Ryan Corr and Sarah Snook, who play Jonah’s best friends and roommates in the film, provide wonderful performances, and Corr in particular delivers some great lines.
Kwanten’s character isn’t far removed from Jason on True Blood, they’re both not the brightest, tend to show off their arses and are obsessed with partying and having sex. In that way, he’s both perfect for the role and a bit of a distraction. If he didn’t have the Australian accent in place, you’d be waiting for Sookie to pop out of any corner running and screaming from something. But at the same time it’s why you don’t question his naive insistence on having a child – you would imagine Jason doing the same.
Not Suitable for Children is a light-hearted film that’s clearly been made with a lot of love from its creators. It’s a simple story that could have easily ended up a Home and Away plot line, but has been crafted in such a way that it does sit comfortably as a feature. More than anything else, it was a delight to see a decent Australian film that wasn’t depressing. After a slate of critically acclaimed but difficult to watch dramas like Animal Kingdom, it’s a joy to be invited back for a bit of a laugh, and for this, the film achieves with flying colours.
Review Score: 7.0 out of 10.0
Documentary: Whores' Glory
Directed by Michael Glawogger, Whores' Glory is the third part of Glawogger’s globalization trilogy (following Megacities, Workingman's Death). Needless to say, he doesn’t paint an overly positive portrait of modern society, and his latest work - which documents prostitution through case studies in Thailand, Mexico and Bangladesh - is no exception.
A spiritual follow-up to 2005’s Workingman’s Death, and far from the usual tale of prostitution, the Austrian Director has mada a cautious decision to take sexuality out of the equation for the most part, looking at it as a profession. The only sex in the film is between two dogs (not a euphemism, and probably unnecessary), and a scene towards the end of the film in Mexico which displays, in all graphic detail, what this profession is all about.
We witness how different cultures treat the women, how the different groups of women treat the men - and how religion plays a part in their attitudes. From the comparatively ‘upmarket’ prostitution businesses in Bangkok, where the women are perceived to have more freedom (though are chosen by number in a glass room, as though at a zoo), to the horrors of Bangladesh where women feel trapped, and without an option to leave, to Mexico, where the women seem to hold pride in what they do - one women in particular, proudly declaring “I used to be the best whore in town” - in the same way you might suggest you are the best at the job you do - while others pray for escape as they smoke crack in front of the camera.
What makes this such a fascinating insight is that there are no Herzog-esque revelations made by Glawogger; he lets the subjects and the footage speak for itself. Of course editing always plays a part, but you genuinely feel like you’ve gained some insight into way an average day on the job is like for those in it. And it’s not an enviable one to say the least.
Review Score: 7.9 out of 10.0
Feature Film: Dead Europe
One film which left the room divided was Tony Krawitz’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ (The Slap) acclaimed novel Dead Europe. The film focuses on Isaac (Ewen Leslie) and his journey through Europe, as he learns about the hidden secrets of his father, whose ashes he came to spread in his hometown in Greece. His first time to the country, he becomes haunted by his own demons as well as those of his father’s, as the concepts of mysticism, destiny, curses, ghosts and more are explored.
There is nothing particularly bad about the film to have put people in such a divided state. The performances are outstanding (Marton Csokas as Nico steals the film), the music from Jed of The Mess Hall is wonderful, and the editing impressive. It’s in the character of Isaac that the film finds fault - a character not particularly likeable, and one who seems to spend much of the film wandering around looking like a deer in headlights. When a character like this is our protagonist, it’s hard to get involved or feel attached to their actions. When things start unraveling, this disconnect only deepens.
Though I haven’t read the book, I imagine these character flaws carry over from the source material, however in the book, we are treated to much greater insight of the journey of Isaac’s father, and the atrocities which have haunted him and his family ever since. Though on paper the removal of this story as a focus on camera should have made an easier story to tell, unfortunately this really was the most interesting part of the journey. When we find out why Issac’s father spent his life running from the demons of his past, it fails to deliver the punch in the gut it deserves.
Had the film been switching between the journey of Isaac and that of his father, you may have had a more expensive film (not to mention more difficult to make work) but you definitely would have had a more interesting, engaging film. For a book that is infamous for its controversial themes, the film fails to deliver the same level of intrigue and though beautiful to look at and well constructed, the decision to focus on an uncomfortable character makes it a difficult film to watch.
Review Score: 5.9 out of 10.0
Feature Film: Today
One of the twelve films participating in the Sydney Film Festival official competition, Today (Aujourd'hui) is a quietly beautiful film. With an eloquent performance from Saul Williams, the Alain Gomis helmed film takes us on the journey of the last day on Earth for Satché, a Senegal man played by Williams.
The film offers no explanation of the cause of his death, nor why the timing of his death is so precise. His actions throughout the film keep you guessing throughout (Is this a punishment for a crime? Is he sick?), which is an interesting, if not unexpected choice by director Gomis.
The editing is precise and well considered while the close ups and long scenes of silence create an almost meditative atmosphere – in particular a scene where Satché is shown how his body will be washed the morning after he dies. A beautiful moment.
The film doesn’t provide any grand notion of mortality, it just exists to see the journey of one man who knows the end is just a sleep away. Throughout the film he goes through all the stages of grief - from confusion to anger, to happiness and acceptance. We see glimpses of his hometown and learn enough about the man’s past to make us care, but not enough that it’s anything more than a snapshot or a depressing journey. It’s an unexpectedly and untraditionally clever film in its simplicity, and a beautiful one in its bizarre realism. A film destined to become a cult favourite in the years to come.
Review Score: 8.7 out of 10.0