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With its new six-pack of Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, the Sydney Film Festival in 2005 will expand in prestige, venues and numbers, as new Director Lynden Barber unveils an eclectic program hot with jaw dropping documentaries, the latest European and Asian art films, innovative digital films and a sensational French thriller with two of France’s great male stars, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil. Andrew L. Urban previews the 52nd edition.

Sydney sparkled in the autumn sunshine as if the heavens were smiling on the enterprise when the 52nd Sydney Film Festival held its first official function on April 27, to launch the Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, at a function at the 47th floor Summit restaurant Orbit bar, with views across the sun-drenched harbour. (See NEWS published April 28.) It was the precursor to this week’s unveiling of a wide and eclectic program of films gathered from around the world as new Festival Director Lynden Barber plunged into the task.

Films in the program come from UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Spain, NZ, South Africa, Australia, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Denmark, Czech Republic, China, Norway, Hungary, Switzerland, Japan.

A film writer and critic (previously with The Australian) Barber has emerged with over 200 films for his inaugural festival, and one of his personal favourites is 36 Quai des Orfevres, directed by ex-cop Olivier Marchal, “a terrifically intense French police thriller,” says Barber, “brilliantly acted by the two biggest French male stars, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil . It was a big box office hit and a critical success in France. It’s the first really strong police thriller from France in quite a while and seems likely to kickstart a new trend.”

As to why a police thriller fits into a Festival program, Barber says the film is “beautifully photographed in rich, dark tones with slivers of silvery light. 36 Quai des Orfèvres is both an homage and an updating of France's own great tradition of crime films, with a marvellous supporting cast featuring Valeria Golino, André Dussollier and Roschdy Zem.”

"a carefree joie de vivre that is absolutely contagious"

Another Barber favourite is Murderball, “a riveting documentary about quadriplegic rugby and the rivalries between the US team and its hilariously macho former coach, who defected to the Canadians and avowed revenge on his former colleagues for booting him off the team. It’s a complete eye-opener , as the wheelchairs used by the players look like something out of Mad Max 2 - built to crash into their opponents and send them flying (which happens frequently - and the players’ personalities are colourfully over-the-top.”

Barber has chosen the acclaimed English film, My Summer of Love for Opening Night; “A beautiful film about two young girls who are looking for escape one lazy summer,” says Urban Cinefile’s Louise Keller, “and are dazzled by the promise of love. The mood is that of youthful abandon, bringing a carefree joie de vivre that is absolutely contagious. Winner of the 2005 BAFTA Outstanding British Film of the Year and other festival awards, My Summer of Love is an intimate film by Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort), adapted from the novel by Helen Cross. The performances from newcomers Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt are simply outstanding, while the picturesque Yorkshire settings emphasise the isolation for the characters, and music is a powerful driver.”

Clearly, there is no nurtured theme for the program, but Barber says the recent popularity of documentaries has “encouraged a new enthusiasm for non-fiction in the US” – and elsewhere. Indeed, photography is a mini-theme in the documentary field, with “a number of interesting docos on the subject of photography and photographers.”

For example, Mark Wexler, the filmmaking son of the legendary US cinematographer Haskell Wexler has made a documentary “about his spectacularly grumpy father that turns into an amazing, often very funny piece about the difficult relationship endured between the two men,” says Barber. It’s a classic story of what it can be like growing up in the shadow of a famous parent and for good measure it’s packed with great anecdotes from famous directors and stars, including Michael Douglas - who produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from which the elder Wexler was sacked.” Mark Wexler will be a special guest of the festival.

"a session with five leading Australian cinematographers"

The Festival is also presenting a session with five leading Australian cinematographers who will each talk about and introduce a screening of a film that greatly influenced them. “Andrew Lesnie, who won an Academy Award for Lord of the Rings, will be introducing The Ipcress File, the 60s spy classic that gave Michael Caine his first starring role,” says Barber.

And in the documentary, Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History, director Simon Nasht examines the work of legendary Australian cinematographer and photographer Frank Hurley, who left behind a collection of striking and daring photographs. His most famous images are of Ernest Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition, but he also took remarkable photographs during WWI and in his native Australia. Using extensive archival footage shot by Hurley, as well as many of his photographs, Nasht opens up the photographer's life and work. Nasht returns to the Antarctic with the photographer's twin daughters and discusses the controversy surrounding some of his pictures. 

Music continues to fascinate documentary filmmakers, but Barber wanted to balance the ubiquitous rock doco with something more classical. He found just the film. The intersection of art and life are at the core of Music From the Inside Out, a provocative 90-minute musical journey through the lives of the 105 musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

“You look for films with a basic idea in mind; there are so many films out there you have to have some sort of guiding approach,” he says. “But you also have to be prepared to be surprised. The basic curating principle has to be diversity. The days of having your typical festival patron are gone. We still have a loyal audience, so we do want to please them with what they might expect, but we also have to attract new audiences, perhaps tempting them with bite size offerings so they try that and then maybe next year they try something more.” 

There’s nothing really radical in his approach, and Barber says it’s important to remember the guest programmers also have an input. People like Peter Giles, head of New Media at Australian Film Television and Radio School, who is curating the Australian digital work. Film producer Al Clark, who in a previous life worked for Virgin Music, is curating the retrospective on rock and pop films.

"The new Urban Cinefile Audience Awards... a lot of value for filmmakers"

As for the new Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, Barber says these Awards “add a lot of value for filmmakers. To have an official award with a capital A, to have a physical trophy, is significant. Awards get media attention, not only in the consumer media but in the all important film trade press, which is a great boost for the winners. And I think it makes perfect sense for Urban Cinefile to be our Presenting Partner for this…film is your business.”

Speaking of his first Festival Barber says it’s been a learning experience, ranging from organisation and management issues to diplomacy skills. “But I'm excited that this year we've widened our number of venues so we can offer more variety and choice for audiences. We'll be using two screens at the George St Cinemas for the first time - only five minutes walk from our spacious main venue The State Theatre in Market Street. We'll also be using Dendy Opera Quays and the Art Gallery of New South Wales for screenings, with some live events and screenings at The Studio at the Sydney Opera House on the second weekend. 

"The result is a festival that will have something for everybody - whether they like Hong Kong crime films or European thrillers, classic rock and roll films or innovative new digital film-making or the latest in stimulating European and Asian art cinema." He also put together an Argentinian section in recognition of the strength of that country’s current filmmaking.

One stunning example of digital filmmaking, says Barber is The Forest for the Trees by Maren Ade, “a brilliant German film, shot on digital that starts as a comedy about a daggy young schoolteacher who moves to a new city and tries desperately to fit in ---it gradually shifts tone with a subtlety that is quite remarkable.” Barber found this film by one of those happy accidents. “I was at the Toronto film festival and between two screenings. I had to decide whether to have something to eat or have a look at this German film, which clashed with the Russian film I was planning to see a bit later. So I popped in for a look, but within a few minutes I was totally hooked.”

"Finding new talent is part of Barber’s vision"

Finding new talent is part of Barber’s vision for the Festival, and he is excited about Me and You and Everyone We Know, “one of the freshest discoveries from this year's Sundance Film Festival in the US and screening [International Critics Week] at Cannes this month. It marks the emergence of a terrific new film talent in Miranda July, an American whose background is multi-media visual art. She not only wrote and directed the film but also stars in it and has a delightfully charming screen presence. This is another skewed look at life in the US suburbs; think American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides but with a quirky and original style of its own.” 

Among the world premieres is the sizzling, Two Girls, from acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Kutlug Ataman, about two girls freewheeling through Istanbul, shrugging off studies and household chores. “A fabulously energetic new feature,” says Barber. The film will be introduced by Kutlug Ataman and producer Gulen Guler who will participate in a question and answer session following the screenings.

For the first time, the full program of the 52nd Sydney Film Festival will be distributed inside the Sydney Morning Herald, on Monday, May 16, 2005.

Key Dates: 
10 June Opening Night Film and Gala Party
tba June Digital Program at The Studio Sydney Opera House
25 June Dendy Awards Finalists screening at State Theatre
25 June Urban Cinefile Audience Awards, Dendy Awards and FIPRESCI Awards 
25 June Closing Night Film

State Theatre
Dendy Opera Quays
Art Gallery NSW
The Studio Sydney Opera House
George Street Cinemas
Statement Lounge – World Movies Festival Club

Published May 13, 2005

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36 Quai Des Orfevres


My Summer of Love - Opening Film


Forest for the Trees

Lynden Barber - SFF Artistic Director

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