Sydney film festival's isolation edition: from climate devastation to killer jellyfish

Luke Buckmaster

Another year, another vibrant Sydney film festival program, full of exciting titles procured from around the world, which will screen at various cinemas across the ci- … no, wait, let’s start again.

For reasons that are now obvious to all and sundry – starts with “C”, ends with “19”, involves avoiding crowds – the Sydney film festival will, for the first time in its 67-year history, not screen any films at physical venues and instead run a slimmed-down program exhibited entirely online, from 10 to 21 June. There’s also a “Sydney film festival selects” partnership with SBS on Demand, running from 10 June to 10 July, screening various titles that have appeared on previous programs – not dissimilar to one of those “best of” TV compilation episodes.

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The first thing one notices about this year’s program is just how slim it is. No big names; no marquee titles; no famous international actors; no rabbits pulled out of a hat. Putting together a vibrant program is difficult at the best of times, requiring all sorts of behind-the-scenes wrangling and manoeuvring the public is never privy to, and there’s no doubt that challenge increases ten or a hundred fold during these, as is often repeated, difficult times.

The scant program is a reminder that organising physical screenings at a world-renowned festival is one thing, and organising online events for the same organisation is quite another. Perhaps it’s a minor miracle the SFF team came up with anything at all.

The four core strands in 2020’s SFF-lite edition are: Australian documentaries (comprising 10 feature docos), Europe: Voices of Women in Film (seven feature films and three feature docos), Screenability (three short films) and Australian short films (10 shorts).

Here are five films I’m looking forward to.

The Skin of Others

Scholar and film-maker Tom Murray’s documentary includes the final film appearance of the late Balang T Lewis (otherwise known as Tom E Lewis), who died in 2018. It is an exploration of the life of Douglas Grant, an Indigenous Australian activist and veteran whose jam-packed life includes fighting in the first world war on the frontline in France, where he was captured by Germans.

The Germans were “very curious about Douglas” due to “his dark complexion, history as an Aboriginal man educated in a white society, and even his ability to put on a Scottish accent,” according to a biography published on the Australian War Memorial website. The Skin of Others is a feature-length extension of an ABC audio production and a 2018 short film available to watch on the Guardian.

The Weather Diaries

The difficult and confronting question of what the world will look like for the children of today, in a climate-devastated future, has been explored before and remains perhaps the most pertinent question of current times. Director Kathy Drayton takes an interesting approach to the subject in The Weather Diaries, which was filmed over six years and follows her daughter Imogen as she progresses from childhood to adulthood, while studying the effects the climate crisis has had on her life.

Charter

Nominated for the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance film festival, Swedish filmmaker Amanda Kernell’s sophomore feature poses an intriguing question: what if a mother abducted her own children? Losing hope that she will win a custody battle, Alice (Ane Dahl Torp) runs off with her two children and takes them to Spain. This character-oriented drama pivots around the relationship between Alice and her children, reportedly offering a multifaceted exploration of motherhood.

A Perfectly Normal Family

Danish actor-turned-director Malou Reymann loosely based her drama A Perfectly Normal Family on her own experiences, having grown up with a father who embarked upon gender transition when she was 11. A Perfectly Normal Family is based in the 1990s and told from the point of view of a daughter, Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt). Emma’s mother Helle (Neel Rønholt) announces that she and her husband Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) are getting a divorce “because Dad wants to be a woman”. Playing the transwoman in question, Følsgaard, according to a review published on Variety, “avoids the usual pitfalls … rejecting an artificial performance of femininity”.

Sea Fever

And now for something completely different: a sci-fi horror/thriller about a giant jellyfish that wreaks havoc on a fishing trawler! Mining a deep vein of genre influences, which inevitably can be traced back to the mother of them all, Jaws, the feature film debut of writer/director Neasa Hardiman evokes some ye olde terror on the seas.

A marine biologist doctorate candidate, Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), joins the trawler crew to get first-hand knowledge for her thesis – although by the sounds of things she will come to regret not hunkering down in a lab somewhere, examining test tubes. Fun frivolity on board the fishing vessel ensue. And by “fun and frivolity” I of course mean chaos, infections, death and terrible terrible pain.

Sydney film festival runs from 10 to 21 June