54th Sydney Film Festival

Australia, June 8 - June 24 2007

The jury

Atilla Dorsay (Turkey), Li Cheuk-to (Hong Kong), Paul Harris (Australia)

Awarded films

The 54th annual Sydney Film Festival, the first under the energetic stewardship of new director Claire Stewart expanded its programme to include several strands, a tentative but necessary step in developing new audiences and to hopefully increase ticket sales.

With venues spread out over several blocks in the central business district it is a logistic challenge to travel around the various venues but festival goers are a hardy breed with an insatiable curiosity and appetite for new viewing experiences and the Festival rose to the challenge.

Major event strands included a diverse program of films about people with disabilities a sidebar devoted to childrens’ films, the highlight of which was a rare screening of The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T. a critically neglected 1953 Technicolor musical fantasy scripted by Dr. Seuss and produced by, of all people, Stanley Kramer. Other well-received sidebars included an excellent cross-section of contemporary Turkish and Brazilian cinema, a selection of newly created works commissioned by artistic director Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna in honour of Mozart’s 250th anniversary, the ubiquitous music documentaries, with all bases covered from Kurt Cobain to Bollywood, several screening in an atmospheric cabaret-style screen environment at a city club.

Veteran San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Les Blank attended with his most recent work and first to be filmed in a digital format, All In This Tea, which he co-directed with Gina Leibrecht. The typically laid-back cultural exploration reflected on the tea trade in contemporary China as seen from the viewpoint of an American importer-connossieur of the ancient brew who dresses like a Somerset Maugham character in white suit and straw hat and behaves like a San Francisco-ex-hippy.

A major John Huston retrospective ranged from predictable inclusions such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The African Queen (1951) to comparative rarities like his long-banned wartime documentary Let There Be Light (1945) and the little seen Wise Blood (1979).

Also o view was a grab-bag selection of revivals and restorations including Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep (1977) and Gus Van Sant’s first feature Mala Noche (1985) and a literally wonderful tribute to legendary animator Norman McLaren courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada which has restored most of his major short works.

The audience vote for most popular film was won by Lucky Miles, an Australian comedy with a highly topical theme in which a motley group of Cambodian and Iraqi refugees are stranded on the remote Australian coastline after being unceremoniously dumped by an Indonesian fishing boat. Significantly, the film screened on World Refugee Day and tied in perfectly with the Festival’s 2007 motto “Transport Yourself”, a deliberately ambiguous phrase with its multiple connotations. A similar theme emerged in writer- director Tony Ayres’s Home Song Stories with Joan Chen cast as a Hong Kong nightclub chanteuse who follows her Australian-born husband to his homeland.

The FIPRESCI Award was won by The Monastery: Mr. Vig And The Nun, an emotionally affecting Danish feature documentary directed by Pernille Rose Gronkjaer about a cantankerous octogenarian who decides to bequeath his crumbling mansion and surrounding property for use as a monastery in the climaticallu harsh Danish countryside to the Russian Orthodox Church and the ensuing battle of wills when a Russian nun arrives to inspect the decaying premises.

The subject matter suggests the possibility of a bucolic culture clash between two polar opposites but director Grønkjær’s unobtrusive observational technique deftly sidesteps the possibility of glib caricatures. Instead we are witness to a platonic love story based upon a slowly emerging mutual respect and shared spirituality between the lifelong bachelor-scholar and the pragmatic sister. Despite numerous differences of opinion the pair achieve their common goal in a profoundly moving final act.(Paul Harris)