When the Sydney Film Festival came around in the same week of exams, I knew I was destined for a week of popcorn-filled procrastination. After extensive research of the program and an elimination process that would rival most reality shows (Is two movies in one day too much?), I finally came to my top five.
Day 1 – We Don’t Need a Map
Camera d’Or winning director Warwick Thornton opened the Sydney Film Festival with his documentary which examines Australia’s political and cultural identity. The film was created as a follow up to Thornton’s 2009 statements that “the Southern Cross is becoming the new Swastika”. In it, he discusses the Southern Cross from astronomical and indigenous perspectives, Captain Cook’s invasion, and the racist connotations of the Southern Cross tattoo. If it sounds cluttered, that’s because it is. It’s Thornton’s first feature length documentary and it suffers from a lack of clear vision. Yes, you learn something about a broad range of topics; But you come out of the cinema unsure of the exact message he intended to convey. After the incredibly powerful drama Samson and Delilah, this was a bit of a letdown.
Day 2 – Australia Day
Red Dog director Kriv Stenders premiered his gritty racial drama at the festival, followed by a Q&A with the writer, director and stars. The story rapidly jumps between three different young people, each trapped in perilous circumstances with seemingly no way out. There’s Sami (Elias Anton), an Iranian teenager who is attacked for a crime he didn’t commit. Next is April (Miah Madden) a young indigenous girl on the run from the police. Finally, there’s Lan Chang (Jenny Wu) a Chinese sex slave escaping an illegal brothel. The film is action packed, filled with danger, tension and a lot of running. During the movie, you’re on the edge of your seat, with each storyline getting more intense and, slightly ridiculous, by the minute. Only when it finishes can you pause and reflect on how melodramatic it really is. Entertaining? Definitely. But for a nuanced and subtle look at race relations in Australia, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Day 3 – Graduation
If you didn’t see a foreign language film at a film festival, did you really go to a film festival? This grim Romanian tragedy won Cristian Mungiu the Best Director award and Cannes last year, and it’s not hard to see why. A bright teenager, Eliza (Maria Dragus) has been offered a scholarship at Cambridge. It is an unmissable opportunity to escape her small town, however she must ace her final exams to go. The day before her first exam, an attempted sexual assault leaves her in shock, unable to perform her best. Her father, Romeo (a compelling Adrian Titieni), just wants the best for her, and is forced to abandon his honest ways and enter a shady, messy world of corruption, to get it for her. Although slightly too long, Graduation is a tough and engrossing look at ethics and morality.
Day 4 – Wind River
The directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, the writer behind the fantastic Sicario and Hell or High Water, Wind River is my favourite film of the festival. When a young woman is found raped and frozen to death in the rugged wilderness of rural Wyoming, FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to investigate. She enlists ranger Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as a tracker and together they venture into a dangerous world, where the vicious weather is only one of many threats. Sheridan has produced both a tense murder mystery and an intelligent, emotionally affecting study of grief.
Day 5 – I Am Not Your Negro
Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Oscars, I Am Not Your Negro is an unflinching look at the history of racism in America. The narration, read by Samuel L. Jackson, comes from writer and activist James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. With a mixture of modern and archived footage, director Raoul Peck creates a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement that shows both how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got to go. Through Jackson’s voice, we here Baldwin recount the story of his free friends- Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr-and their assassinations. Baldwin’s writing is insightful, articulate and unforgiving. I Am Not Your Negro is an unforgettable film that makes you think.
So, there you have it! My list barely scratches the surface of the wealth of quality films on show at the Sydney Film Festival, but can at least give you a suggestion for films to seek out in the future.