Sydney Film Festival

Around the world and down under in two weeks
of Sydney Film Festival…

by Rowena Carter

The Sydney Film Festival has come to life, after last year’s criticism…with some big names on the red carpet and a diverse array of film makers on the big screen, the people of Sydney should be grateful for the cash injection by the state government which saved it from the fate that featured in nearly every film I saw over the two weeks: death and depression…well depression was more my fate having watched a series of heart rendering films which give viewers a whole new perspective on what they have to complain about…

Screenings from 47 countries started with Australian made South Solitary directed by Shirley Barrett, which charts the misadventures of a woman (Miranda Otto) who visits a remote island with her cranky uncle, mourning the death of her fiance on the World War I battlefields. A Bridget Jones in the 1920’s, this storyline examines the miscommunications and dilemmas associated with romance, with a darker tone documenting the strange and traumatic feelings of a community still scarred by war.

Other films from home soil included Australian-french co-production The Tree about a family’s grief after a father’s death, in Wasted on the Young showing the disaffected youth in an elite school, The Waiting City about a couple’s meltdown as they visit India to adopt a child, Three Boys Dreaming documenting the struggle of three indigenous Australians as they follow their dream of playing AFL (Aussie rules footy).

A hefty demand and small theatres sadly made it difficult to get my hands on passes for the films from down under, and sadly I missed out on seeing the highly anticipated British films Four Lions, which follows some ridiculously un-terrifying terror plots, using comedy to reveal some uncomfortable truths about the world we live in, Exit through a gift shop, Banksy’s teasing faux documentary and Roman Polanski’s sleek political thriller The Ghost Writer , based on the best-selling novel by Robert Harris. This upset me more than words can express as I also missed the lovely Ewan McGregor who blessed us with his dashing presence down under on the red carpet at the Australian premier.

So then…with no prospects of seeing the big boys, I began my journey of independent films from an array of cultures with Bahman Ghobadi’s portrait of young musicians living in Tehran. No One Knows About Persian Cats gives a glimpse of the political conditions of the Islamic Republic of Iran obliquely and since his 2004 film Turtles Can Fly, Tehran has attracted international attention as a site of repression and resistance, making his birds-eye footage of the city (using his own portable digital camera instead of the State’s authorised film equipment) both risky and rare. The film was shot in 17 days to keep off official’s radar and reveals an anti-American tyrant, a violent police force, and heroic young rebels of our generation. Scenes in underground basements and isolated barns are hastily shot and roughly edited, mirroring the Yo uTube videos that document the protests. A humorous insight of the cultural suppression was a line delivered by one of the locals “Oh, I love indie rock! 50 Cent, Madonna… they’re great!” however the film soon takes a dive towards the traumatic consequences for those caught up in the resistance, with a traumatic ending which had me not only in floods of tears, but in shock over the gravity of the political unrest that crushes so many people’s dreams in this world.

Another poignant tale of the aftermath of political battles came in Iraq’s Son of Babylon which follows twelve year old Ahmed and his grandmother’s search for the boy’s father Ibrahim, MIA and reportedly arrested in 1991. This excruciatingly sad tale brings home the mind-boggling toll taken by the Saddam years, with more than one million Iraqis dead or missing, many exhumed from the 300 mass graves discovered up to now. With graves tumbling with skulls and bones, this film isn’t for the faint hearted and again the cinema was silenced with sobs as the credits came up.

I had a little rest bite with two short films – Soul Boy is a collaboration between a German and Kenyan production team who hosted production workshops in Kibera, Naorobi, one of the largest slums in East Africa. In the compelling film that resulted, a teenage boy tracks down the witch doctor who stole his dying father’s soul in a quest to save him. Even more joyous was Dyana Gaye’s Saint Louis, which tells the story of six passengers ride through the cluttered urban streets of Dakar and down the dusty roads of Senegal through a Jacques Demy style musical.

Spain’s Cell 211 is an intense prison drama which shows what happens when the nastiest, most violent inmates take over the prison, and a rookie played by Alberto Amman (Spain’s answer to James Mc Avoy) finds himself caught in the middle. The film shies away from a predictable heroic tale and instead reveals the journey of one man to the dark side, following the death of his pregnant fiancé as he turns against the good guys. Touching on the corruption of the Spanish officials, the political message was somewhat diluted by the unrealistic plot, however Tosar’s performance is stunning and I for one will be looking out for him in the future.

One of the highlights came from Omar Rodriguez Lopez (Mars Volta, At the Drive In) who wrote, directed, produced and acted in The Sentimental Engine Slayer, a hallucinogenic film in which a nerdy young guy preoccupied with ’67 Mercury Cougar cars and strangulation, which connects with the theme of nihilism and tortured sexuality. Through random fragments that never follow the chronological order (think Pulp Fiction or Memento), the story is to some degree unravelled, revealing the perfect bits of information at the perfect moments. Accompanied with an outstanding and enhancing soundtrack created by John Frusciante, the film ends and you think what the f…and walk out with a confused smile on your face as you digest what just happened…

Having experienced the traumatic,the unimaginable, the random and the ridiculous, my last film was entertaining and easy on the mind…Hesher is a heavy metal nomad who plays the part of a hyperactive and destructive volcano who erupts sporadically and emphatically as he takes over the home of TJ a young boy mourning the death of his mother. Hesher gives a damn about nothing and no one, and the insight is offered by the gratuitous provocations and repetitive vulgarities that are littered consistently yet understatedly throughout the film. Despite some disturbing psychological undertones Hesher is amusing and somehow warm and fuzzy as you try to get inside the psycho in underpants who shares a tender moment over a bong with granny and then goes absolutely nuts as he blows up a car and fills a swimming pool with an array of furniture in the vicinity of a vacant house.

All in all the Sydney Film Festival had some fantastic film pieces from across the world, and I can’t wait for the next one…Perhaps I’ll even make it to the red carpet and find myself confronted with the funniest, happiest feel good film in the world…I suspect not, for film festivals are the perfect platform for all of the heartfelt and unusual films that don’t get a pop at mainstream cinema and this saddens me, so I anxiously await next year’s opportunity to get a glimpse of more genius works from people who have something meaningful to say for themselves and the world we live in…In the meantime though I might go and cheer myself up with the cheesiest rom-com I can find…I think I have been damaged by the trauma of the cinematic representation of reality, and all the sadness it depicts…

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