A Watershed Sydney Film Festival

in 51th Sydney Film Festival

by Stephen Teo

The 51st Sydney Film Festival (which ran from 11-26 June 2004) ended on a high note to the tap dancing beat of Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi. The resplendent State Theatre, the festival’s main venue, quite literally bounced to the fusion strains of Taiko and the tap-dancing music of the end credits. The mood was festive and indeed, triumphant, but as the last credit of the film unrolled, the audience then settled into a valedictory mode as the festival president Cathy Robinson farewelled festival director Gayle Lake and the chief executive officer Fiona Allan. For both Lake and Allan, the occasion must have felt like a vindication of sorts — a successful culmination of their attempts to tackle the structural problems of the Sydney Film Festival by broadening the audience base, using more venues and shifting into more alternative programming ideas such as Hong Kong action cinema (including director Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan and Clans of Intrigue), or the video works of independent Hong Kong filmmakers from the group known as Videotage, or an emphasis (even if minuscule and somewhat belated) on the South Korean cinema (Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder were two of the best films shown in the festival). The 51st edition of SFF may well be regarded as a watershed moment in the recent history of the festival, laying the foundation on which the newly appointed artistic director Lynden Barber (a well known critic in Sydney’s film circles) can build upon to fully realize the festival’s potential.

Given its many advantages (a beautiful location, a cosmopolitan multi-cultural community and a well established filmmaking centre), the Sydney Film Festival could certainly become Australia’s pre-eminent film festival. But it has so far consistently trailed the festivals in Melbourne and Brisbane in terms of the quality of programming and the regional focus of both competitors. The 51st edition has come on strongest in the traditional focus on the documentary, which was also the focus of the Fipresci Jury. The winner of the Fipresci Prize was Jehane Noujaim’s compelling Control Room, a joint US-Egypt entry about the role played by Al-Jazeera during the Iraq war. The strong field included Canada’s The Corporation directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, Australia’s Anthem directed by Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman, New Zealand’s Haunting Douglas directed by Leanne Pooley, and Canada’s Dying at Grace directed by the veteran documentarist Allan King.

That the documentary is an important film form celebrated by the SFF is further underlined in its major retrospective of Michelangelo Antonioni, which included rare screenings of the master’s early documentaries (those he made before be started directing features) and his 1974 Chung Kuo. The Antonioni retrospective, complete except for I Vinti and The Passenger, rekindled interest in the master’s enigmatic narratives and his cool, concentrated style. Antonioni, now in his 90s and suffering the effects of a debilitating stroke, was a major influence on Asian directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. To this observer, there is a certain irony in noticing that while audiences were flocking to watch Antonioni’s masterpieces over again, one of the master’s true heirs, Tsai Ming-liang, was represented in the festival by his recent work Goodbye Dragon Inn, which was dismissed as “tedious” by critics writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and who promptly noted that the film “emptied the State Theatre more effectively than a fire alarm”. Yet, it’s perhaps a sign of the courage of the departing festival director Gayle Lake and of the challenge ahead for the Sydney Film Festival that Goodbye Dragon Inn was programmed at all.