Sydney Film Festival: Around the world in 48 films

14 Jun 2018

A pair of Kiwi friends who break up couples for cash; an Iranian director hurt about by being overlooked by a serial-killer targeting film makers; a deadly love affair between a Palestinian delivery driver and Israeli business owner and a champion of justice who takes on the South African president – these are just some of the uniquely global stories to feature in this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

Now in its 65th year, the Sydney Film Festival continues to widen horizons and take risks with its curation of home-grown and international cutting-edge cinema.

This year UNSW’s Arts & Social Sciences is partnering in an event associated with a documentary, Whispering Truth to Power. The film examines the role of Public Protector Thuli Mandolesa in bringing president Jacob Zuma to face corruption charges while fending off protests, legal challenges, and death threats.

Director Shameela Seedat, UNSW’s Professor Andrea Durbach and Associate Professor Jane Mills along with Arts & Business Law student and film major Debbie Zhou will sit on a special guest panel to talk about the film on Thursday 14 June at the Treasury Room, Town Hall.

Whispering Truth

UNSW also supports the festival’s Features program, comprising 47 films from more than 30 countries. The celebration of multi-cultural enterprises follows on from the UNSW-supported Thinking Globally series of events recently associated with the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

All six of the world’s continents (barring Antarctica) are well represented with films infused with their own local brand of story-telling.

In Australia and Oceania there are five entries from Australian and one from New Zealand.

Chocolate Oyster is a playful look at twenty-somethings as they navigate love and careers while struggling to stay ahead of Sydney’s exorbitant costs of living. It is an experimental film that was workshopped between actors and director Steve Jaggi featuring liberal amounts of improvisation and shot in black and white.

Another Aussie standout is Brothers’ Nest, brought to us by Kenny (2006) creators Shane and Clayton Jacobsen who both direct and co-star in this black-comedy about two bickering brothers as they struggle to commit the perfect murder.

From across the ditch, New Zealand brings us a quirky comedy with the distinctively deadpan brand of Kiwi humour, The Breaker Upperers. It centres on a couple of best friends who run an unconventional business breaking up couples for cash. Written, directed, and starring Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami, The Breaker Upperers is executive-produced by Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows [SFF 2014]) whose influence is unmistakable.

Three films from China examine the discord between the country’s traditional past and its arrival on the world stage as a modern urban superpower. Wrath of Silence is slick action film noir about a miner who returns to his home village to search for his son who disappears while shepherding. This clash between old and new is given more contemplative treatment in An Elephant Sitting Still, about the inter-connected lives of four people desperate to leave their town and The Taste of Rice Flower, the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship.

Other films from the Asia region include two from Japan, one each from South Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Taiwan and India.

From the Middle East, Iran’s Pig is a hilarious and irreverent look at the Iranian film scene. Directed by Mani Haghighi, Pig depicts self-obsessed, black-listed Iranian film director Hasan whose ego suffers when a serial killer beheads Iran’s finest film makers, yet leaves him unscathed. Haghighi (Modest Reception [SFF 2012]) pokes fun at the vanity of artists and a nation obsession with social media.

On a more serious note, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is delicately handled and humanised in The Reports on Sarah and Saleem. A Palestinian venture with The Netherlands, Germany and Mexico, the film looks at an illicit affair between a delivery van driver and a café owner in West Jerusalem, both married. But the lovers’ betrayal of their partners soon becomes betrayal of their states, as exposure of the affair brings in involvement of security agencies from both sides. Director Muayad Alayan navigates a taut tightrope between personal and political morality in this exhilarating thriller.

In the European contingent are three French films and one each from Spain, Germany, Poland, Denmark and Romania.

The French film A Season in France tackles the politically charged issue of asylum seekers in Paris. Helmed by Chadian-French filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, the story follows a widowed refugee from the Central African Republic as he finds new love in France under the constant threat of deportation. The film resonates beyond France to the global community at large in its examination of displaced people who have been cruelly cut off from mainstream life.

A reworking of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window is a South African debut feature from female writer-director Nosipho Dumisa, set in the badlands of urban Cape Town. Number 37 is a thriller with its own distinct personality, landscape and language. It depicts an injured small-time burglar trying to blackmail a powerful criminal after witnessing him commit a murder from his apartment window. Dumisa combines high-level suspense and gripping emotional drama to make this film much more than a reworking of a classic.

Also out of Africa is a Kenyan film Rafiki, described as a hip and romantic lesbian love-story that was banned in its own country. Director Wanuri Kahiu captures the vibrant streets of Nairobi as she illustrates the dangers for two young women to be in love in a conservative community. In telling the story, the director also manages to showcase Nairobi’s colourful aesthetic and charming music.

No surprises that the USA has the most films in the festival, with 14. Familiar TV and movie stars featuring in these are Mad Men’s John Hamm in espionage thriller Beirut, Hamm’s Mad Men co-star and Handmaid’s Tale lead Elizabeth Moss in a version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman in indie feel-good comedy, Hearts Beat Loud.

Two films from South America round out the global contribution to the Features stream.

Hard Paint from Brazil tells the story of awkward teenager Pedro who is unable to connect with people except as a fluro paint-smeared ‘camboy’ who strips and dances for his online audience. But when he becomes aware of another camboy who copies his act, interesting and unpredictable story twists ensue. And Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s comic thriller Zama tells the story of a lowly official slowly going mad in a remote Spanish colony.

For more information, visit the Sydney Film Festival website.