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Sydney Film Festival raises its reward to $60,000

There have been more red carpets than a Persian carpet showroom at the Sydney Film Festival this year. The festival ends its ‘red carpet marathon’ this evening with the Australian premiere of The Square, competing for a record $60,000 Sydney Film Prize with 11 other official competition films, each one graced with a red carpet gala for its opening night premiere.

But Australia is no longer a classless society. The red carpet at Sydney Film Festival has two lanes – one for all the ticket-holders of the opening night film, the other, barricaded by burly bouncers and the SFF publicity team, is strictly for everyone on the festival team’s filofax. The festival is the most important film event in Australian calendar, and the festival team knows it too. The message of this year’s festival, bannered by the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize, is that the Sydney Film Festival has launched itself into the starry stratosphere of seriously prestigious events. You won’t find unknown indie gems here – the programme looks exclusively reserved for widely distributed films by those with claim to name and fame.

Australian film ‘Three Blind Mice’, for example, is an interesting choice as one of the selective 12 chosen from around the globe for Official Competition. Directed by young Australian actor Matt Newton, who is most famous in the press for his recent alleged assault of his soap-star (now ex) girlfriend and for being the son of Australian TV star Bert Newton, the ‘director profile’ in the SFF programme lists Matt Newton’s long profile of TV acting credits. No directing credits are noted at all.

Director Nash Edgerton of The Square (premiering tonight), also has been a darling of the press, and makes a high-profile local addition to the official competition. A rising star in the Australian film industry since winning Tropfest a few years back (and brother of well known Australian actor and co-writer Joel Edgerton) Nash Edgerton’s shorts have been action packed, punchy and full of promise and his much anticipated feature debut The Square is unquestionably the local favourite for Best Film.

Nash Edgerton will have stiff competition for the 60 grand from last night’s official competition premiere – ‘In Bruges’. Featuring Colin Farrell as a hapless first-time Irish hit man who finds himself “in hell” – i.e. in Bruges, and Ralph Fiennes almost unrecognisable as the delightfully nasty low-life boss who has sent him to Bruges as a “last happy holiday” before he kills him, this film wowed the audience with a script that sparkles, and some spirited comedy that was outrageously politically incorrect; Even midgets are targeted in this film. And the comedy hit its target too – the audience was in uproar. And I was in uproar listening to an unexpected echo of the script throughout the screening - a man next to me translated the Irish accents of the film into English for his wife next to him. At once point the audience also wondered if the film was interactive and in 3D, when an Irishman in the cinema dress circle yelled at another audience member to move out of his way so he could “f’n” see properly – using rather fruity language that was also rather frequent in the film.

Another official competition film, Stop-Loss, took a very direct hit at stunning its audience, by targeting at controversial subject - the issue of US soldiers being involuntarily sent back to Iraq after already serving their time in the killing fields of the middle east. Featuring noble performances from Ryan Philippe and Australian Abbie Cornish, and directed by Kimberly Peirce in her second feature following Oscar nominated Boys Don’t Cry, this is a competent film that brought an injustice to the public eye and some emotion into an otherwise intellectual debate, but somehow I sensed the audience didn’t quite take a bullet to the heart. The post-screening Q&A was fuelled with talk of the pressing issues, showing the director Kimberly Peirce has thrown her heart and soul into righting a wrong with her war-time drama. For that alone, she deserved her place on stage and the film deserves its place in the Official Competition – let’s hope it can generate the talk globally that it did after its Sydney Film Festival Australian premiere.

‘Out of competition’ there have been many other films worth of stealing the competition stage.

‘A Complete History of My Sexual Failures’ featured the affable and self-affacing British director Chris Waitt turning the camera on himself and his own dating disasters. Fortunately Waitt’s film-making prowess exceeded expectations and surpassed certain other performance problems he bravely reveals… delivering an earnestly funny and confessional diary-doc that was also surprisingly sweet. If there was one film that has earned and deserved the ‘buzz’ of the fest, this is it.

Another film that had the audience abuzz, though unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, was French film ‘The Heartbeat Detector’. A company psychologist is asked to investigate the mental state of his CEO. His boss is paranoid and delusional. Or is he? As the central character lost the plot, so too did the audience. They walked out of the film during the screening, one by one, and those who stayed to sit through some very long enigmatic scenes seemed to be waiting until the end for enlightenment – they rushed out as the credits rolled muttering ‘what the hell was that all about?’.

The Hong Kong director of Trivial Matters, Pang-Ho Cheung, left his audience in no doubt as to what his film was all about. “Lets talk about sex, baby”, could have been his pitch for this feature collection of seven short-film vignettes. The film brazenly looked at, and showed, the topic from every angle and position. It was seriously cheeky, with unexpected moments of vulnerability and genuine connection that made all these ‘trivial matters’ seem a lot less trivial. The audience left more than satisfied, perhaps simply too polite to scream out for more.

Blue Eyelids is a film that played more with subtlety, winning its audience over with the silence between the words on that same subject of the ever awkward and embarrassing dating game. It was one of those delicious films full of where you hope that the actors weren’t paid by the word, because while their big expectant eyes spoke volumes, they don’t say much at all. Two somewhat goofy and awkward loners start to get to know each other, and just maybe start to fall for each other- because they’re lonely, or because they’re meant to be, we really never can tell. They’re at times aloof, at times soppily romantic, and seem to start to fall in love as if it’s a pot-hole –but it works; An interesting choice for a first-date movie, and a beguiling Mexican love story that is bound to cham beyond borders.

‘To see if I’m smiling’ was a highlight of the doc screenings to date. Six young Israeli women talk about their time in the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), and discuss the moments when they crossed the line and ‘stopped feeling’. Any doc that depicts an army turning young women into young men is sure to be gripping. But this doc is delivered with a fragile hand, revealing the girls’ femininity and compassion together with their strength. They talk of actions they regret. A young woman wrestles with her shame as she remembers getting her photo taken for fun next to a Palestinian corpse that had just come in – with an erection. They talk of doing things that are ‘not normal’, but that how in the Gaza conflict is not normal so somehow it makes sense. While the doc is a shocking indictment of the Israeli army’s treatment towards Palestinians, it also engages real empathy with the young soldiers profiled, as they very openly recount the inner conflicts and trauma they experienced being on the front line of war.

‘Men’s group’, by Australian director Michael Joy, also dealt with its issues with such raw emotion and realism that I had to check the programme to confirm that it wasn’t a documentary. A group of men meet every week to talk about the problems in their lives, with so much pent up anger that the tension and testosterone in this film went off the Richter scale. Their predicaments also clearly registered with a predominantly male audience – one man watching in the audience was wiping away quiet tears. The film was indeed compelling, to both genders, until the crucial climax. I envied the man sitting on the other side of me who accidentally missed the ending though when he went to the bathroom in what turned out to be the final few minutes of the film. After 100 minutes of such emotional ferocity and realism, created in classic Mike Leigh style, the ending truly shocked me and angered in its un-believability. Take 2- ending redraft, please!

The 55th Sydney Film Festival official competition concludes this evening, though the out of competition programme continue for another week at venues throughout Sydney city. Despite the extreme cold and rain of winter threatening to keep audiences away, the crowds have been flocking in. With full houses in most cinema sessions over the last week, the festival can already boast a success at its half way point, and it’s sure to be another gripping seven days of cinema.

Wendy Dent

Sydney, 15 June 2008
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