Sydney Film Festival unveils DAF competition docs

'A Fire Inside' will make its world premiere at Sydney Film Festival.

Sydney Film Festival has announced the films to compete for the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) Award for Australian Documentary, with a 12-strong line-up to mark the prize’s 12th anniversary.

The winning film will be presented with $10,000 at the festival’s closing night in November.

All docs were selected for the festival’s original August date, but the move to later in the year means a number of the films, such as SBS’s Australia Uncovered projects Strong Female Lead, The Bowraville Murders, The Department and Incarceration Nation, will have broadcast already. Others, like Gracie Otto’s Under the Volcano, are in digital release.

Its a challenge for the festival to grapple with, but given the disrupted nature of this year, it may still be first chance for many of the filmmakers to have their work screen in front of a live audience.

And, notably, there is still a world premiere in the mix: Justin Krook and Luke Mazzaferro’s A Fire Inside, exploring the selfless actions of the NSW Rural Fire Service during the 2019-2020 fires.

“We want to carry on with the competition because we think those dollars are valuable for the filmmakers, but also the profile is valuable for them. We made a call this year that it didn’t matter if they were going to be broadcast or not. We just wanted to celebrate these ace filmmakers,” Sydney Film Festival head of programs and documentary programmer Jenny Neighbour tells IF.

Ben Lawrence won the DAF Award in 2018 with his debut film, Ghosthunter, and may look to follow-up it up with Ithaka, his portrait of Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton. The director of The Department, Sascha Ettinger Epstein, will also be seeking to back up her 2017 win for The Pink House.

Other films in this year’s line-up include the AACTA nominated films I’m Wanita and When The Camera Stopped Rolling (Strong Female Lead is also AACTA-nominated), Eddie Martin’s The Kids, Jeff Daniels’ Television Event and Yaara Bou Melhem’s Unseen Skies.

Overall, Neighbour sees the 2021 projects as a testament to the filmmakers’ tenacity, with many completing their films through the pandemic.

“I do hope that people take the opportunity to see these films and to think about the kind of stories that Australian filmmakers are covering, and the real dedication they have. There’s never been a lot in the way of dollars in documentary making; they often make them for love, not money,” she says.

“This line-up of film shows such a breadth of filmmaking talent that we have. I wish we could celebrate that more often.”

Other past winners of the Australian documentary prize are: Descent (2020); She Who Must Be Loved (2019); In the Shadow of the Hill (2016); Only the Dead (2015); 35 Letters (2014); Buckskin (2013); Killing Anna (2012); Life in Movement (2011), The Snowman; Contact and A Good Man (2009 joint winners).

Sydney Film Festival is due to run November 3 to 14, and will reveal its full program in coming weeks.