Sydney Film Festival unveils first crop of 2021 titles

Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson in 'Step Into Paradise'.

Sydney Film Festival has revealed the first 22 titles on its line-up for this year, which will see the festival return to cinemas around the city after 2020’s virtual iteration.

Leading the pack are a contingent of local docos including Philippa Bateman’s Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow; Amanda Blue’s Step into Paradise and Eddie Martin’s The Kids, recently selected for Tribeca.

SFF will also boast the NSW premiere of Kiwi film The Justice of Bunny King, Gaysorn Thavat’s debut feature led by Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie; and NZ-Canadian co-production, NIght Raiders, directed by Danis Goulet and executive produced by Taika Waititi.

Festival director Nashen Moodley is excited to return to an in-person event come August, noting the festival already had a “incredible” response to its summer season in January at the State Theatre, when it screened High Ground, Firestarter, Girls Can’t Surf, Minari and Another Round.

“That was really encouraging to us, so it’s a very exciting prospect to be able to return to cinemas with a large program,” he tells IF.

Among the early line-up unveiled today are some films the festival had selected to screen last year before it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

These include 2020 Berlinale Golden Bear winner There Is No Evil, from Mohammad Rasoulof; Janicza Bravo’s Zola; and Christian Petzold’s Undine.

“We were quite close to to presenting the first batch of films in 2020 just before we were forced to cancel… There are some of those films that we will present this year because we love them,” Moodley says.

‘The Justice of Bunny King’.

Speaking to the local line-up, Moodley describes Blue’s Step into Paradise, about the friendship between fashion designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, as “a beautiful tribute to their their energy and their influence”.

Wash My Soul in the Rivers Flow, Bateman’s directorial debut, follows Archie Roach and the late Ruby Hunder ahead of a 2004 performance with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra.

“It’s the story of their lives, the story of their relationship, the quite shocking moment when they both realised that they were of the Stolen Generation. It’s an incredibly moving film that’s exuberant and joyful, but also reminds us of the of the tragedies of our history,” Moodley says.

The director is yet to see Martin’s The Kids, which is still at a rough cut stage. However, he notes documentary selector Jenny Neighbour is “very fond” of the film, which follows the actors from the Larry Clark 1995 cult classic Kids. “I can’t wait to see it.”

The Justice of Bunny King follows a mother-of-two whose children have been taken into social services. Moodley regards Davis’ titular character as feisty and beautifully played. “It’s a very moving film with fantastic performances, and has a wicked sense of humour as well.”

Archie Roach and the late Ruby Hunter, subjects of ‘Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow’.

Other highlights of the early line-up include Blerta Basholli’s Hive, which won all three main awards in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition in January; Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Venice Special Jury Prize winner Dear Comrades!; the Venice, Toronto and Sundance-selected Night of the Kings, from Philippe Lacôte, and Berlinale 2021 Silver Bear winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

Also set to screen is Mads Mikkelsen and Anders Thomas Jensen collaboration Riders of Justice; Stephen Kijak’s The Smiths tribute Shoplifters of the World; Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe’s The Beta Test; Todd Stephen’s Swan Song, Nicholas Maury’s My Best Part; Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box and animated feature The Ape Star, from Linda Hambäck.

In documentary, the line-up includes Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ Sundance-decorated Writing With Fire; When a City Rises, about the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and Jennifer Abbott’s climate crisis exploration The Magnitude of All Things, featuring Greta Thunberg.

About 80 per cent of the Sydney Film Festival program is confirmed, with the team to move “frantically” to complete the program ahead of the full launch July 21.

The festival has moved to August from its usual June dates, following the shifts of major festivals like Cannes and Berlin, whose films are typically picked up by SFF, and in the hope that more people will be vaccinated. It will revert back to June next year.

This year’s line-up will also be smaller than in past years. COVID-Safe hygiene protocols mean the turnaround time in between sessions has to be longer; effectively reducing the total program by 25 per cent.

That has forced Moodley and his team to be even more selective than usual in the films they invite, and has meant they have had to also be slower to piece the program together.

“That’s been a difficult part of this selection,” Moodley says.

“Usually we could move faster; when you see something and you like it, you invite it immediately… In this case, we had to wait a bit a bit longer than we usually would. We’ve got to try to watch as much as we can before making selections.”

While Moodley is excited for the return to cinemas, some positive elements of last year’s online festival will remain. Border closures mean international filmmakers and guests will be unlikely able to travel to Australia, but there will be virtual Q&As and the like.

Sydney Film Festival runs August 18-29. The full line-up will be announced July 21. Flexipasses and subscriptions are available now.