The Sydney Film Festival is arguably the most important film
event in the cultural calendar for Sydney, and with 45 festivals
to date the event is a stable slot in the notoriously transitory
Sydney arts scene.
"The Festival has
highlighted the weakness of much film writing in this
The Festival can be relied upon to provide a vibrant window
onto the array of films not slated for distribution in Australia
in the coming year (perhaps only 40 out of the 180 scheduled
films will eventually gain Australian distribution) and also a
distinct vision of what international film-makers are saying,
from the rogue independents to the almost predictable art house.
The Festival reminds us that cinema is also an important
cultural space for visiting film-makers and commentators who
become interview fodder for local critics. And this is the other
side of the Festival which deserves more attention - the event is
two way and in recent years the critical response to the Festival
has highlighted the weakness of much film writing in this town.
The problem is best expressed like this: How do reviewers,
trained and fed on an endless diet of Hollywood cuisine
ordinaire react when – suddenly - over 15 days, they are
presented with what cinema really is; diverse, multi-cultural and
prides itself on having ... both screenings and
Because the Festival is not a market there are no big
announcements of deals done or prices paid, and few stars come to
Sydney for the event. What Sydney's Festival prides itself on is
being a film-makers/film audience Festival, and that means one
which has both screenings and discussion.
There are, for instance, a series of forums in which the big
issues are debated such as film funding (a crucial topic in
Australia at the moment), censorship, the future or documentary,
and film makers available for questioning by the general
audience. The inability of mainstream reviewers to come to terms
with ways of reporting these intellectual spaces within the
Festival is an embarrassing weakness.
The Sydney Film Festival is presented in the classical
opulence of the State Theatre, a genuine 1920's 'palace' , and
the nearby Pitt Centre multiplex . The programs for these venues
are variously presented under the logo's of The Panorama and The
Edge, representing a basic curatorial distinction between an
overview of world cinema and a program including documentaries
and in-depth mini-programs from Africa, Wales and a retro
collection of Frank Capra films.
"The most important
sub-season will be from Africa"
The Panorama sessions have some real gems, including Cannes
'97 winner The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), The Apostle (Robert
Duval) and Funny Games (Michael Haneke) but The Edge sessions is
where the curatorial strength of the Festival should be judged.
These films are quirky and surprising, coming from the margins of
international production in many cases. This year the most
important sub-season will be from Africa - it's almost ten years
since a major retrospective of African cinema was presented in
Australia, and the Festival has films from Mali., Tunisia,
Madagascar and Senegal.
The Edge also has documentaries ranging from the curious (a
survey of Tarzan characters in film history) to the confronting
(the Wasteland's study of Romanian gypsies and Chile, Obstinate
Memory directed by Patricio Guzman). Supporting the documentary
strand is a personal visit from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
with an all night screening of their work.
"The Festival poses
some big questions... "
Woven into the program is a series of 'specials' including new
French cinema, new media art from Germany, Jazz and new films
from Vietnam and Wales.
Beyond the desire to see all the films on show, the Festival
poses some big questions about the enthusiasm of local
film-makers for seeing overseas product of such variety, the
standard of critical writing and the range of films in
distribution in Australia. Whilst these might sound like one
writer's hobby horses, they are at the centre of an on-going
debate about the quality of cultural (screen) life.