Kleber Mendonça Filho wins the 63rd Sydney Film Prize for ‘Aquarius’: review by Zalehah Turner

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Winner of the 63rd Sydney Film Prize, Kleber Mendonca Filho (Aquarius) at the Sydney Film Festival, 2016 (Courtesy of the SFF)

The winner of the 63rd Sydney Film Prize is Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho for his moving portrayal of music critic, widow and cancer survivor, Clara (Sonia Braga) fighting to retain her Recife apartment and legacy despite the underhand schemes devised by a powerful corporation in Aquarius. The award which comes with a $63,000 cash prize was announced by Jury President, Simon Field on 19 June 2016 at the Closing Night Gala of the Sydney Film Festival. Simon Field claimed Aquarius was “a film of effortless verve and intelligence.”

The Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition, now in its ninth year, is a highlight of Festival program and the announcement of the Sydney Film Prize is a much anticipated event at the Closing Night Gala. Previous winners have included, Miguel Gomes’s three-part film, Arabian Nights (2015) based on One Thousand and One Nights, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) which went on to win both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012 and the first recipient and winner of the Caméra d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008).

According to Festival Director, Nashen Moodley the Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition was a “a compelling program of 12 of films that demonstrate the cutting edge of film-making” with “some of the most exciting films and filmmakers in the world right now.” Of the twelve films selected by Nashen Moodely for the 2016 Official Competition, Simon Field stated that, “the Jury was unanimous in its admiration [of the] strong competition this year.”

Three of the films vying for the prestigious, Sydney Film Prize, came directly from Cannes. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World both competed for the Palme d’Or with It’s Only the End of the World taking out the second most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Prix. While, Ivan Sen’s outback noir and sequel to Mystery Road (SFF 2013), Goldstone, opened the Sydney Film Festival on a distinctly Australian note.

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Festival Director, Nashen Moodley with Kleber Mendonca Filho (Aquarius) at the Sydney Film Festival, 2016 (Courtesy of the SFF)

Accepting from Recife in Brazil, the 2016 Sydney Film Prize winner, Kleber Mendonça Filho said, “To get this recognition from Sydney Film Festival means a lot to me and to the film, which is building up momentum for our Brazilian release.” Although, he was unable to be at the Closing Night Gala to receive the award in person, he sent a video message to the Sydney Film Festival and its audience expressing his thanks and commending Nashen Moodely for his programming skills, comparing them to that of a DJ. “Being a DJ in a film festival is the best thing that there is!” he said. Mendonça Filho added that, Moodely was constantly surprising over the length of the festival through his programming with different rhythms and different films.

Nashen Moodley explained, after the first screening of Aquarius at the State Theatre on 10 June, that music was very close to Kleber Mendonça Filho’s heart and that this was reflected his direction and screenplay of Aquarius. Mendonça Filho’s first feature film, Neighbouring Sounds screened in the 2012 Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition although, it did not win. However, there are distinct similarities in the screenplays such as, the location, that of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s home town, Recife, the strength and resilience of the characters and the socio-economic themes.

Clara (Sonia Braga) in Aquarius (SFF 2016)

According to Kleber Mendonça Filho, Aquarius “is very much about the past, the present and the future.” The director claimed that the very “heart of the film is memories” and that he saw it “almost as a time machine” with objects, photos and records providing the impetus for flashbacks and allowing for smooth transitions between the different stages and periods of time in Clara’s life. Music, Mendonça Filho claimed, didn’t get old as we did. More importantly, it contained personal memories of certain times in our lives for all of us, especially, Clara. He said that it was easy to add what he referred to as an expensive soundtrack because music meant so much to Clara and often forms her initial response to the violent attacks from the corporation wishing to tear down her apartment. Director, Kleber Mendonça Filho added that the film was also very personal and that there was a lot of his mother in the strong, female protagonist, Clara.

Jury Chair, Simon Field maintained that Kleber Mendonça Filho had created a “witty, sexy and playful” film that was both political and personal. He stressed that, “Aquarius is a compelling and relevant statement of contemporary Brazil at a very appropriate moment.” He added that, “at the heart of it is Sonia Braga’s astonishing and brave performance of a fearless character resisting pressures from her family and the corporate world.”

For anyone who missed out on Aquarius in the official 2016 Sydney Film Festival program, you can catch it at Palace Norton Street, on Wednesday 22 June at 6pm. Palace Verona and Palace Norton Street are screening twelve of the extremely popular, top-selling films after the Festival’s Closing Night Gala. Festival Director, Nashen Moodley said that, “These screenings are a wonderful way for audiences, if they missed out on Festival tickets, to see some of the most talked-about films of the year.”

-Zalehah Turner



Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

By Popular Demand: Aquarius screens at Palace Norton Street on Wednesday, 22 June at 6pm http://tix.sff.org.au/session_sff.asp?sn=Aquarius

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