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SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 1999: SO HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?

Paul Byrnes, outgoing director of the Sydney Film Festival after a decade, feels – rightly – that this was perhaps his best ever festival. ANDREW L. Urban reports.

Tell us how you enjoyed the festival
(or not) – HERE .
And below, read Paul Fischer’s snapshot reviews of some of the films screening.

Paul Byrnes is in the streets of Darwin as he takes my call, finalising arrangements for the three night African Cinema season that has been touring the country, an extension of the Sydney Film Festival (made possible with a little help from the Australian Film Commission’s Touring Fund). The festival has wrapped, the office has been relocated from the glorious State Theatre to the comparatively mundane environemnt of the festival’s digs in Glebe. How does he assess this, his last Sydney Film festival?

"I was very happy with it," he says down a creaky mobile line. "If not THE best, it’s certainly been one of my best festivals, and I base that on people’s response, which has been very warm. It’s been a very happy crowd…you can tell. Just as you can tell if they’re not happy."

Byrnes adds that the Festival was also successful in operational terms. "That’s something you always worry about, but with over 200 films, we only had to rearrange one short film, which is pretty good."

As for the dollars, when the final count is in, Byrnes feels the takings will be very close to target. "It could have been a bit better, but it’ll be close to what we wanted."

(Byrnes will complete his tasks as festival director by the end of July, but will return to ease the hand-over to the new director – not yet appointed.)

PAUL FISCHER'S SNAPSHOT REVIEWS

THIRTEEN (USA)
The Festival began with the heartfelt Thirteen, a beautifully realised film fusing documentary and dramatic style, dealing with a 13-year old teenage girl's dream of buying a car. The film explores the depth of her relationship with her widowed mother, and explores the purity and angst of childhood in a truthful manner, as few American films seem to do.

GADJO DILO (France)
Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo is a superb, brazenly funny yet ultimately poignant tale of a gypsy village. What begins as a quizzical fish-out-water tale develops into a work of passion and supreme emotional depth. The film's central character is Parisian Stephane who finds himself in the midst of the Romanian countryside on a search to find a gypsy singer whose voice on a tape has mysteriously overpowered him. He knows none of the language, but that doesn't stop him accepting the hospitality of the gregarious gypsy Izidor, who offers him protection amongst his wildly suspicious clan of musicians. In the meantime, he unexpectedly falls in love with the voluptuous and earthy Sabrina, while also examining the harshness and persecution that follows the gypsy. Full of a wild sexual humour, yet also contains a rich and poignant humanity. This is indeed, a rare master work.

WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (UK)
Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo is also a remarkable achievement. Shot on location, the film revolves around a seemingly detached journalist (beautifully played by Stephen Dillane) whose life changes when he comes into contact with a young, abandoned girl. The film is as much about the nature of war, as it is about the media and its manipulations. It's a tough film, but Winterbottom embeds with an occasional slice of sardonic humour and air of optimism. It's a powerful and intelligent drama.

MARIUS AND JEANETTE (France)
Marius and Jeannette is one of those unexpected pleasures that one comes across in a film festival. Set in Marseilles, the film is primarily an oddball love story between a security guard, who feigns a limp to gain sympathy, and a tough single mother who speaks her mind. But this is so much more, a carefully layered and at times abrasively funny look at the lives of the neighbours who inhabit this small French village. With a magnificent soundtrack that is used to heighten the film's often idyllic sense of romanticism, this is romantic comedy with added ingredients which set it apart.

TWENTYFOURSEVEN (UK)
Twentyfourseven is a brilliant first feature from Shane Meadows, a haunting drama about a boxing club managed by the tragically naive and idealistic Alan Darcy, played with magnificent truth by Bob Hoskins. In the impoverished Midlands, his aim is to take a group of social misfits and give them purpose in life. This is not Rocky material, but a passionate, gritty tale of social realism that is both boisterously funny and ultimately tragic. A masterful film which heralds a major new directing talent.(Opens in Australia June 25,1998: see our full set of REVIEWS)

HAPPY TOGETHER (Hong Kong)
Far less successful is Happy Together from director Wong Kar-Wai. The story of a tormented Chinese gay couple in Argentina is a tedious affair, a fragmented, unsatisfying drama that revolves around two men hankering for each other when apart and destroying each other when together. It's interesting to see a film about two Chinese characters in a different environment, but little is made of this, and the film meanders along without rhyme nor reason, and it's impossible for an audience to sustain sympathy for either character. PF

STREETLIFE (Wales)
Also problematic is the Welsh film Streetlife, from director Karl Francis. Essentially, the film details the hardships of an impoverished single mother, who goes through more pain and tragedies than most of Shakespeare's tragic characters. There's nothing new here, and the film is a pedestrian look at working-class life. However, what it DOES have is a magnificent performance by Helen McCrory whose emotional range is superb. This is a great actor's film minus some great ideas.

THE EEL (Japan)
Japan's The Eel shared the Palm d'Or at Cannes last year, and is a fascinating, entertaining yarn, that switches tone with the greatest of ease.

The film begins with a jealous husband viciously murdering his adulterous wife. Almost a decade later and on parole, he decides to open up a barber shop with his pet eel for company and a young woman whom he saves from suicide. With a menagerie of idiosyncratic characters in toe, the film is a story of redemption and trust, a wonderfully multi-layered and hypnotic work.

A TASTE OF CHERRY (Iran)
The Palm d'Or was shared with Iran's A Taste of Cherry, also screened, and it will remain one of those eternal mysteries of the modern age, as to why this film was even allowed in competition. Dealing a man enlisting help in committing suicide, this is a relentlessly slow, and utterly pretentious film that appears to have more meaning than it does. There's no sense of character and the film's ending is confusing for confusion's sake. In all, a dull mess.

LIFE OF JESUS (France)
No, this is not a French take on the New Testament, but possibly the worst film of the Festival and an insult to festival goers that this piece of offensive tripe could even be screened (as an extra night, no less). The story of a fascist racist who spends his time riding with his mates on a motor bike and having rough sex with his pretty girlfriend, is a film as dull and meandering as they come. Not only doesn't it say anything new, but the film takes a long time over it. It's a deplorable cinematic exercise, poorly acted and innocuously directed, a dreadful, painstaking bore.

FOURTEEN IN MAY (Italy)
With relatively little on offer from Italy, this interesting film about a priest's unorthodox relationship with a 13-year old boy, tries too hard to be too many different things, and the mix is somewhat uneasy. As a comment on the state of contemporary Catholicism, the film has pointed moments, but it's also a part-thriller involving the Mafia, and its technique featuring characters addressing the camera is merely self-indulgent. Though nicely acted and at times powerful, the film is an unsatisfying work without a coherent line of argument or structure.

THEY CALL ME JOY (Philippines)
Films about prostitution aren't new, but this Filipino take on the subject is still a delight and surprisingly engaging. The story of a beautiful prostitute who ends up marrying a naive, lovestruck farmer [much to his mother's chagrin] is a film that is touching, sexy, funny and even savage, yet all elements come together seamlessly. Featuring a remarkable performance by Rosanna Roces, They Call Me Joy is a somewhat simplistic treatise on the role of women in contemporary Filipino society, yet it's so beautifully executed that one forgives its obvious flaws. It's a real treat.

FRANK CAPRA'S AMERICAN DREAM (USA)
Movie lovers would be enthralled by this simple but entertaining documentary on the life of a Hollywood icon, a film maker whose idealised portrait of thirties and forties America were at odds with himself. Though the film is somewhat conventional in structure, takes few risks and leaves out many unsavoury aspects of Capra's life and philosophy, it's an entertaining look at his work, featuring interesting insight from the likes of Scorsese and actors such as Richard Dreyfuss. And the film clips are of course wonderful to remember.

FUNNY GAMES (Austria)
It's a mystery why this film was picked up for Australian distribution, as it remains another pointless, self-indulgent piece of clap trap on the nature of the media and its relation to violence. Two seemingly pleasant chaps invade a bourgeois family's country home and relentlessly torture them with devastating results. Ugly, mindless with pretensions of intellect, the film is an amoral, barbaric work that seems so out of kilter in a society addicted to senseless violence. The film was booed by the festival audience,

LUCKY STAR (Spain)
Here is one of those remarkable films that come out of nowhere. A butcher without testicles rescues a one-eyed girl from a beating and they fall in love. When her imprisoned boyfriend leaves prison all three lives are changed in unexpected ways. Part black comedy but mostly love story, Lucky Star is a poignant and unconventional work, a deeply moving and human story about the true nature of humanity. It's a truly involving and powerful work, richly textured and flawlessly acted.

FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES (USA)
A highlight at this year's Sundance Film Festival, this impeccably crafted and detailed study of the growth and disintegration of an initially idyllic relationship, is a complex and moving film. Erotic, yet emotionally vivid, the film details the purity of a complete relationship and what can lead to its romantic ideals to crumble. Stunningly shot in the southern Bayou the film boasts a superlative performance by exquisite Natasha Gregson-Wagner who has 'star' written all over her. It's a hauntingly poetic work.

POST COITUM ANIMAL TRISTE (France)
Here's a case of a great title and great idea, which ends up as a film that is intriguing, yet irritating to say the least. The story of a 40-year old book editor who has an obsessive relationship with a younger guy, has been done before. After the relationship fizzles out, she spends the rest of the film moping about and being so idiotic, that the character grates excessively. There are nice moments, but the film simply runs out of credible steam.

PERFECT CIRCLE (Bosnia/France)
It's interesting to compare this haunting drama with Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo. It's clear that seeing an intrinsically Bosnian perspective, the British film pales in comparison. Perfect Circle is, in a word, extraordinary, and a film that demands a commercial release. The film begins, and ends in a cemetery, hence its title, yet the film never allows itself to wallow in self-pity or pessimism. Mustafa Nadarevic gives a hypnotic performance, as do the two children, and the film's often stark images of war are neatly counterbalanced by its deep humanity and sly humour. This is a remarkably poetic and richly layered work, a rare and poignant masterpiece that deserves the widest possible audience.

RADIANCE (Australia) – Closing Night Film
Stunningly shot and directed with assurance by the intelligent young filmmaker Rachel Perkins, Radiance is a mature and meticulously crafted film. It also contains some of the most dazzling performances of the year, in particular Deborah Mailman who lights up the screen at every turn as the youngest sister Nola. With her energetic and ebullient performance, a star is born. Radiance is an intricate, emotionally rich and exhilarating work which is destined for commercial success. And given the current political scene, its release could not be more timely.

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45TH SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL

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Results of the audience's vote on the most popular features, documentaries and shorts:

FEATURES
1. Radiance (Australia) Director: Rachel Perkins

2. Gadjo Dilo (France) Director: Tony Gatlif

3. Marius and Jeannette (France) Director: Robert Guediguian

4. Perfect Circle (Bosnia/France) Director: Ademir Kenovic

5. The Sweet Hereafter (Canada) Director: Atom Egoyan

6. Leila (Iran) Director: Dariush Mehrjui

7. The Butcher Boy (Ireland) Director: Neil Jordan

8. Hana-Bi (Japan) Director: Takeshi Kitano

9. Welcome to Sarajevo (UK/USA) Director: Michael Winterbottom

10. Streetlife (Wales) Director: Karl Francis

DOCUMENTARIES
1. Waco: The Rules of Engagement (USA) Director: William Gazecki

2. Vision Man (Sweden/Denmark) Director: William Long

3. Hephzibah (Australia) Director: Curtis Levy

4. To Get Rich is Glorious (Australia) Director: Nick Torrens

5. A Place Called Chiapas (Canada) Director: Nettie Wild

6. Our Park (Australia) Director: Gillian Leahy

7. The War Room (USA) Directors: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus

8. Moon Over Broadway (USA) Directors: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus

Nadro (France) Director: Ivana Massetti

10. Tu as Crie/Let Me Go (Canada) Director: Anne Claire Poirier

SHORTS
1. Everybody's Pregnant (USA) Director: Debra Solomon

2. Seven Virtues (USA) Director: Mike Zykoff

3. Three Chords and a Wardrobe (Australia) Director: Brendan Young

4. Fetch (Australia) Director: Lynn-Maree Danzey

5. A Day (France) Director: Marie Paccou

6. Relative Strangers (Australia) Director: Rosemary Hesp

7. Rat Women (UK) Director: Minkie Spiro

8. Masseur (Australia) Director: John O'Brien

9. The Picture Woman (Australia) Director: Peter Rasmussen

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Radiance was also voted the Film Critics Circle award for Best First Dramatic Feature at the Sydney Film Festival, with Deborah Mailman winning a special performance award for her role. Best First Documentary award went to Waco: Rules of Engagement.

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