Sydney Film Festival: Mark Roberts Previews the Official Competition

I’ve always been a little wary of competitions –  poetry competitions, art competitions and the like – too often it seems the works competing are far too diverse to be compared and then, of course, you come to the thorny issue of what criteria is used in judging. I prefer to see competitions more as collections or anthologies, they reflect one person’s, or a group’s taste and, as long as you acknowledge the politics, the egos and the agendas, the long and short lists together with the eventual winners can provide a useful insight into what is being produced in different contexts, regions or styles.

The Official Competition at the 62nd Sydney Film Festival announces itself confidently as “the pinnacle of the competitive awards at SFF each year, presented in recognition of the most courageous, audacious and cutting-edge new cinematic creations from around the world. The Official Competition celebrates that rare but thrilling kind of film that truly moves the art form forward. Innovative, provocative or controversial, they broaden our understanding of the world and say important things in original ways”.

So what are the twelve films that have made it into the official competition this year?

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights

Perhaps the most intriguing film in this year’s competition is Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (Portugal 2014) which is a film in three parts  – Volume 1, The Restless One (O Inquieto), Volume 2, The Desolate One (O Desolado) and Volume 3, The Enchanted One (O Encantado). Described as “ambitious, indignant and filled with offbeat humour”, the film draws on the structure of Arabian Nights to create a vivid portrait of contemporary Portugal. Gomes was anguished by the austerity measures imposed on his homeland and commissioned journalists to gather true stories from all over the country that were then fictionalised. The outcome is a heady blend of the surreal and the all too real.

Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls (Italy 2014) has been likened to The Godfather and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. The film follows three brothers from a southern Italian crime family faced with a crisis and no easy resolution. The Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, is a vast criminal network of international scope and Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), the eldest brother, has turned his back on the drug operation that provided the family’s stature and wealth, choosing a simple life with his wife and 20-year-old son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), raising goats in their ancestral town in the Calabrian hills. Restless Leo idolises his charismatic uncles Luigi (Marco Leonardi), still involved in the narcotics trade, and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), the family mastermind. One night Leo’s impulsive reaction to a trivial argument pulls all three brothers into a simmering feud that threatens to explode. Director Francesco will be a guest at the festival.

The Daughter is the directorial debut for Simon Stone
The Daughter is the directorial debut for Simon Stone

The Australian film The Daughter (Australian 2015) is the directorial debut for Simon Stone and is based on his adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. The film brings together an impressive cast in a heartrending drama about two intertwined families. Christian (Paul Schneider) returns to his family home, after a long absence, for his father Henry’s lavish wedding to a much younger woman. Henry (Geoffrey Rush) is the owner of the local timber mill, which he is closing down, causing much hardship in the area. While home, Christian reconnects with his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), an employee at the timber mill who is now out of a job. He begins to bond with Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young) and father Walter (Sam Neill and starts piecing together a puzzle that will have devastating consequences. Director Simon Stone and Producers Jan Chapman and  Nicole O’Donohue, along with other cast members will be guests at the festival.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (USA 2014) by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is an about friendship, creativity, mortality and the love of cinema. Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior who is trying to blend in as anonymously as possible. Even his closest friend Earl (R.J. Cyler) is described as a ‘co-worker’. Together, Greg and Earl create parodies of classic films. Their repertoire includes: Pooping Tom, A Sockwork Orange, Senior Citizen Cane and 2:48PM Cowboy. When Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) – a girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer – he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be. Greg decides to make a film for Rachel, one that will test the limits of his creativity and lay bare his feelings for her. The film also features a score by Brian Eno.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Roy Andersson’s  A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

 Swedish cinematic visionary Roy Andersson brings his trademark absurdist humour and singular vision to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (France, Germany, Norway and Sweden 2014) which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival Golden. Zipping back and forth through time, and peopled with a bizarre cast of characters, the film is a meticulous tragicomic series of vignettes. Fifteen years in the making, it follows on from the much-loved Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living, together making up The Living Trilogy. It unites a macho Swedish monarch, a randy Flamenco teacher, a series of rather funny deaths and a rousing musical number. Alongside these humorous snippets of life, we encounter tragic examples of man’s lack of empathy for others, and for animals. Guiding us through this unique take on existence are Sam and Jonathan, two travelling salesmen peddling strange novelty items.

In 2013, the world’s media reported on a shocking mountain-high brawl  on Mount Everest as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas. Director Jennifer Peedom and her team set out to uncover the cause of this altercation, intending to film the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpas’ point of view. Instead, they captured Everest’s greatest tragedy, when a huge block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route, killing 16 Sherpas. For the Himalayan workers repeatedly traversing the mountain carrying supplies, the risk of this hazardous endeavor is multiplied. Sherpa (Australian 2015) is the resulting documentary, shot by high-altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk, explores the unequal relationship between cashed-up foreign expeditions and their guides. It is also a story of family and tradition, as exemplified by Phurba Tashi Sherpa, an experienced climber at the heart of the film.

Kim Farrant’s striking feature debut, Strangerland (Australian 2014) marks Nicole Kidman’s return to Australian independent cinema. Soon after the Parkers move to the remote desert town of Nathgari, the teenage children of Catherine (Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) mysteriously disappear. With Nathgari eerily smothered in red dust and darkness, the townsfolk join the search led by a local cop, David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As temperatures rise and the chances of survival plummet with each passing day, Catherine and Matthew find themselves pushed to the brink. The outback here functions as a beautiful but dangerous force, as important as the characters.

Tales, by writer/director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, is a richly layered and emotional look at life in Tehran
Tales, by writer/director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, is a richly layered and emotional look at life in Tehran

Iran’s leading female filmmaker, writer/director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, won best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival (with co-writer Farid Mostafavi) for Tales (Iran 2014), a richly layered and emotional look at life in Tehran. The Film was originally produced as a series of shorts to bypass government control. A number of scenes were shot surreptitiously, including those featuring actors Fatemeh Motabed Aria and Baran Kosari, who were banned from performing at the time. A recent relaxation of restrictions meant that Bani-Etemad could craft the footage into a feature. The twisting narrative is made up of several loosely connected episodes, snapshots of people from many backgrounds who find themselves at the margins of society. Many of the characters have been featured in Bani-Etemad’s previous work, and their backstories add great depth (though it’s not necessary at all to have seen the earlier films to enjoy this one). A taxi driver who tries to help a drug-addicted sex worker, a group of unemployed factory workers confronting government bureaucracy, a social worker running from the husband who savagely disfigured her, and a documentary filmmaker, are among those whose lives intersect.

Tangerine (USA 2015) is a hilarious journey through the lively streets of L.A. with two transgender sex workers on Christmas Eve. Intimate and brilliantly shot, the film is all the more remarkable as it was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), having just been released from a stint in prison, discovers that her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful. Adding insult to injury, Chester’s been cheating with a ‘fish’ – a derogatory term for a biological woman. Incensed, Sin-Dee and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) embark on a wild mission to get to the bottom of the rumour. Director Sean Baker (Prince of Broadway, Starlet) is adept at telling intimate stories involving characters at the margins of mainstream society.

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, Tehran Taxi (Iran 2015) is the third film made secretly by Jafar Panahi since a ban on filmmaking was imposed on him in Iran. Where This Is Not A Film was an expression of great frustration following the ban, Panahi’s next film Closed Curtain was filled with anger. Tehran Taxi is more hopeful, and frequently very funny. A taxi drives through the city streets and various passengers enter, each expressing their views on a range of matters relating to Iran today. The driver is Jafar Panahi himself, and he has a camera attached to the dashboard. Some of the passengers know who he is, but most don’t.

Victoria is a spectacular one-shot film detailing a Berlin bank robbery
Victoria is a spectacular one-shot film detailing a Berlin bank robbery

Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (Germany 2015) is a spectacular one-shot film detailing a Berlin bank robbery. Where single-shot films are usually bound to a narrow location, Victoria is expansive, boldly exploring the city over one crazy night. Victoria (Laia Costa), a young woman from Madrid, meets Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his friends. They promise to show her the real Berlin, but these guys have got themselves in hot water; they owe a dangerous favour to someone who needs repaying that very night. As Victoria’s flirtation with Sonne develops into something more, she is convinced to go along for the ride. What started as a good night out quickly spirals out of control.

Vincent (French 2014)is a gentle, minimalist superhero film. Played by debut director Thomas Salvador, Vincent is an extraordinary young man whose strength, reflexes and agility take on superhuman proportions when he comes into contact with water. With his recently discovered ability, Vincent gravitates towards lakes and rivers to experiment with his gift. When he meets Lucie (Vimala Pons) and falls in love, Vincent shares his secret with someone for the first time and finally feels accepted. But when he displays his powers publically, he is forced to flee.

The Competition will be judged by a panel of 5 Australian and International “film professionals” and will be led by Australian film producer Liz Watts. Other jury members are program consultant Hiromi Aihara (Japan), screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Australia), filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Thailand) and the Austrian Film Commission’s Martin Schweighofer (Austria). The winner of the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize will be announced at the Festival’s Closing Night ceremony at the State Theatre on Sunday 14 June.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic and is the editor of Rochford Street Review.

Complete details on the Sydney Writers Centre can be found at



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