As lockdown lifts, Sydney Film Festival launches full program

'The Power of the Dog'.

With NSW reopening for the fully vaccinated, Sydney Film Festival is set to finally go ahead, with a line-up that director Nashen Moodley believes is one the most diverse and exciting in the event’s 68-year history.

Traditionally held in June, this year has seen the festival pushed back twice, initially to August, and then November.

Yet when the Delta outbreak nixed the August edition, it was unclear that the festival would realistically be held at all. Indeed, SFF will mark the first major festival event to occur in Sydney’s CBD post-lockdown, a notion that fills Moodley with “excitement but trepidation”.

The move to November meant the festival was tasked with reconfirming every title that had been programmed so far. Overall, it lost about 20 films, but gained almost 30, including some of the year’s most anticipated out of Venice and Toronto.

Among the new additions are Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog; Denis Villeneuve’s Dune; Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, and Eva Orner’s climate change documentary, Burning.

Overall the the festival spans 233 films from 69 countries, encompassing 111 features, 50 documentaries and 72 shorts. The festival will also present a small bespoke program online through SFF On Demand November 12-21.

For Moodley, putting together this program has been an almost two and a half year undertaking; there are titles dating back to Venice and TIFF in 2019 that were originally programmed for the cancelled 2020 in-cinema edition.

By virtue of this, the line-up is stacked with work from the world’s leading filmmaking talent in a way that Moodley argues would be “almost impossible” in a normal year. He hopes this means the festival will mark a triumphant return to cinema.

“You have some of the greatest filmmakers of our time, really distinctive voices, all together in one program. It’s a real joy to bring all those films together in one festival.”

‘Here Out West’.

Programmed as the opening night film is the Western Sydney-set anthology feature Here Out West, scripted by eight emerging writers in Nisrine Amine, Bina Bhattacharya, Matias Bolla, Claire Cao, Arka Das, Dee Dogan, Vonne Patiag and Tien Tran, and directed by Fadia Abboud, Lucy Gaffy, Julie Kalceff, Ana Kokkinos, and Leah Purcell.

SFF always tries to open the festival with an Australian title, and Moodley says it will be wonderful to open Sydney with a film from the city that introduces a range of new talent.

There’s something so vibrant about the film, and it’s such at fresh look at contemporary Australian society, that it felt like the perfect film to open this edition.”

Bookending the festival will be Wes Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch, starring Timothee Chalamet, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Edward Norton.

Asked why this film felt fitting for closing night, Moodley quips: “Well, if you had it available to close the festival, what else would you do?

“Part of what I would like very much for this festival to be is not just a celebration of all these fantastic films from the last two years, but also to be one of the markers of the reopening of cinemas, of the revitalisation of the film business.

The French Dispatch is one of those films that people have been waiting for, for such a long time; it was selected for Cannes in 2020.

“I think it’s just such a perfectly cinematic piece of cinema, and will make a wonderful closing night film where everyone will leave with a big smile on their face. I’m so happy to see this film on the big screen.”

The program is heavy with other films from Cannes including Palme d’Or winner Titane, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds and Jaochim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.

In terms of the official competition, local film is represented by Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.

Vying against it for the $60,000 cash prize are a number of Cannes titles, including Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria and Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife, as well as Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, winner of Berlin’s 2021 Golden Bear, and Mohammad Rasoulof’s There is No Evil, the 2020 winner of the same.

Other competition titles include the Oscar-nominated Quo Vadis, Aida?, from Jasmila Zbanic; Paolo Sorrentino’s Venice Jury Prize winner The Hand of God; the Sundance winning documentary Flee, from Jonas Poher Rasmussen; the BAFTA-nominated Limbo, from Ben Sharrock; Christian Petzold’s Undine, and Céline Sciamma’s Petite Mamam.

This year also sees the festival introduce for the first time a $10,000 Sustainable Future Award, to be presented to a narrative or documentary film that deepens knowledge and awareness of the impact of the global climate emergency. The award, which has been funded by climate activists, is philanthropically motivated.

Eight documentaries from around the world have been shortlisted, including Orner’s Burning and fellow Aussie titles, Justin Krook and Luke Mazzaferro’s A Fire Inside and Jen Peedom and Joseph Nizeti’s River.

Others to compete include the The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, The Magnitude of All Things, Taming the Garden, From the Wild Sea and How to Kill a Cloud

Of the local films to screen, Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Burning, Philippa Bateman’s Wash My Soul In the River’s Flow, Tyler Atkins’ debut feature Bosch & Rockit, and River will all receive special presentations at the State Theatre.

One of the festival’s world premieres will be JJ Winlove’s interactive short film, Crossing Paths, starring Benedict Hardie, Chantelle Jamieson and Zara Michales. The film follows 12 people over the course of a day as their lives intersect, with audiences able to choose which character they follow in the narrative – there are said to be 700 possible storylines.

Screening in the genre-centric Freak Me Out section will be the Roache-Turner Brothers’ Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, while the Bridget Ikin-curated Narrative – Flux: Art + Film section, that blends art and cinema, will feature Molly Reynolds and Shekhar Bassi’s documentary ShoPaaPaa. The First Nations strand will include Larissa Behrendt’s Araatika! Rise Up, alongside Canadian-NZ co-pro Nightriders, from Danis Goulet, and Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian from the US.

SFF will also mark the Australian premiere of Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg’s John Farrow – Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows, a portrait of the Sydney-born director and father to Mia Farrow.

Warwick Ross and Robert Coe’s Blind Ambition, which premiered in Tribeca, will screen via the international documentary strand, as will Ted McDonnell’s portrait of Sydney-born, Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle Like the Wind, and Danny Cohen’s Courtney Barnett doc Anonymous Club.

Other local titles to get a Sydney berth will include Granaz Moussavi’s When Pomegranates Howl, James Vaughn’s debut feature Friends & Strangers and Kylie Bracknell’s Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, which reworks Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury to feature an all-Noongar language voice cast.

The festival will feature two Australian titles as retrospectives: Rachel Perkins’ 1998 debut Radiance, starring Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza and Trisha Morton-Thomas, and Clara Law’s Floating Life, one of the first Asian-Australian films ever made.

As previously announced, 12 local documentaries will compete for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award. They are: Incarceration Nation; The Bowraville Murders; Strong Female Lead; Ithaka; The Department; A Fire Inside; I’m Wanita; When the Camera Stopped Rolling; Television Event; Under the Volcano and The Kids.

Official festival venues for 2021 include: The State Theatre, Event Cinemas George Street, Dendy Cinemas Newtown, Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne, Ritz Cinema Randwick, Casula Powerhouse, Palace Central Broadway, Palace Chauvel Cinema Paddington and Palace Norton Street Leichhardt. 

The Festival’s outdoor screen, SFFTV @ Pitt St returns to Pitt St Mall during the Festival. Audiences can catch short films and trailers on the giant, double-sided screen. 

Sydney Film Festival runs in cinema November 3–14 2021. Tickets are on sale now.