Week 2 of the Sydney Film Festival 2018

Week 2 of the Sydney Film Festival 2018

Still from the movie The Heiresses
Margarita Irun in The Heiresses

Of the 25 films I ended up seeing at the festival this year, there were two exceptionally good films, both of which I happened to see on the last day, and there were a number of other good films  of course, but it wasn’t the stellar program of last year’s festival. At least, not the films I saw, and sometimes it’s a matter of the films you can get to. I’ve already covered the highlights from week 1, so here are my highlights from week 2, including my two favourites from this year.

Highlights

BlacKkKlansman

This is one of those stories you have to see to believe. And like all the Still from BlacKkKlansmanmost bizarre tales, it actually happened. It’s the 70s and Colorado undercover detective Ron Stallworth manages to become a paid-up member of the Ku Klux Klan, and, as the title suggests, Ron is an African American. To see how this happens, and what happened next, you’ll have to see the movie. It would have made a good story at any time. But in the hands of Spike Lee, a film maker at the top of his game and who has never pulled any punches, this film becomes a powerful story of race in America, then and now. It draws clear and unmistakable lines between what is happening in the film, and what is happening today. Lee transforms this story into a razor-sharp commentary and loud scream to wake up. Lee knows how to use his medium, using different techniques to draw out his themes, loading the story up for the final power punch. At any other time we would have laughed at the white supremacists as they are made fools of and bought down. And indeed, the audience is laughing at the start, but before too long the laughter gets weaker and it gets harder not to cry as what Lee is saying becomes plain. Don’t miss this film. See it on the big screen if you can.

You Were Never Really Here

Based on a book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, while this has all the elements of another  hard-boiled crime thriller, this is not like any you have seen. Really this story is about the experience of violence and trauma. Joaquin Phoenix, in a role that is one of the best of his career to date, plays Joe, a former FBI-agent and now gun-for-hire, who is paid to rescue a kidnapped young girl. Director Lynne Ramsay has created an extraordinary film where every detail from cinematography to production design, sound design and score create a visceral experience where we see through Joe’s eyes. This film is violent, and shocking, but it’s not the romaticised violence of an action hero or the eroticised violence of Game of Thrones. Here it serves a purpose, showing us what is inside Joe’s head. Another one worth seeing on the big screen.

The Heiresses

A quiet film from Paraguay, this took out the top prize at the Film Festival this year. The story centres around Chela and Chiquita who have lived for years in a large old house full of antiques, all inherited from Chela’s grandfather. But they have no money, and a lot of debt, so they’re slowly selling off all their valuables. They’re not able to raise enough funds in time, and Chiquita is forced to spend a few weeks in prison for the money she owes. Suddenly on her own for the first time in decades, Chela’s world begins to expand. This film gives us a glimpse into a world we wouldn’t otherwise see.

McQueen

Alexander McQueen and Isabella BlowAlexander McQueen was an outsider in the fashion industry, and that was (part of) the secret of his success. That, along with his obvious skill, creativity and dogged determination, of course. From an East London background, he wasn’t afraid of being different, and seemed to enjoy creating controversy. When describing his thinking behind his most disturbing shows, a number of which seem extremely misogynistic, he appears as someone whose main intent is to draw attention to his work by creating outrage. He certainly succeeded in that.

He was someone who stood in that most uncomfortable place, somehow straddling the extremes of artistry and the extremes of industry. He was the creative head of a number of major high-fashion labels in his time, all the while maintaining his own brand where he got away with his most outrageous shows. This documentary hints at McQueen’s discomfort with the business of fashion, but then this is directly contradicted by the evidence of his commercial rise, and also by comments from fellow designer Tom Ford.

I have always been troubled by the fashion industry, its elitism and hypocrisy, while I appreciate the art of design and the highly skilled craft of making beautiful clothes. This documentary highlights this tension, while also telling the story of McQueen, a very complicated individual himself.  There is something missing though. We’re told a lot about McQueen’s troubled past, his difficult relationships with various people, but it still feels like there are things left unsaid, although hinted at. This aside, this is a fascinating documentary about a complicated and interesting man, in a complicated and interesting business.

The Guilty

A Danish thriller which plays out in real time when police officer Asger Holm, who has been temporarily reassigned to the police emergency service call centre, takes an unexpected incoming call. Things begin to spiral as Asger tries to take control of the situation. All the action takes place watching Asger take calls through his headset. A bit like the movie Locke in that way, but without the passing colourful lights and with higher stakes. And like Locke, it works surprisingly well. To make a film like this work, you need an air-tight script and an impressive lead actor (Jakob Cedergren) to carrying the film, and The Guilty certainly has both of those.

The Wild Pear Tree

The latest film by Turkish film maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (One Upon a Still from the movie The Wild Pear TreeTime in Anatolia, Winter Sleep) the story follows the home coming of Sinan Karasu who has finished his studies and hopes to publish a book.  We get a glimpse into the Karasu family, with three generations of men having complicated relationships with the generation before. His father is good-humoured and charming, but has a gambling problem which has bought the family low more than once. Over this three-hour plus film we also get an insight into modern Turkey through small moments with people around the village. Like his previous films, while most of these moments are shot in small or intimate settings, we also get satisfying sweeping views of the landscape, placing these moments in a wider context.

Daughter of mine

This second feature by Italian writer/ director Laura Bispuri is a slow burn, but worth the patience. Shot mostly hand-held in Sardinia, it is the story of 10-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu)  over one summer when her biological mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) appears in her life, throwing normal life with Tina (Valeria Golino), the mother who raised her, out of balance. Vittoria starts to think about who she is, and what kind of person she is, things she has never thought about before.  All three lead actresses are exceptionally good in this very emotionally charged film.

Special mentions

American Animals

A well told but infuriating true story of well-off college kids who see their lives mapped out before them, and decide they want to do something extraordinary… by stealing some very valuable books. Told as a docu-drama, we hear the story through interviews with the real people cleverly intercut with re-enactments. While it was a wild ride, ultimately I felt annoyed at these privileged kids who wanted easy glory, without really considering the consequences. Nice direction and a good script made this work.

Three Faces

Directed by and starring Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, Iranian actress Behnazn Jafari and Jafar Panahi, both play themselves,  as they travel to a tiny town in rural Iran to find out what happened to a young actress due to start at a drama conservatory in Tehran. They have been sent a film the young woman took on her phone, apparently committing suicide, and she hasn’t been seen since. Behnazn suspects a set-up, but Jafar is not so sure and wonders to what end this girl would stage a suicide. Like many films at the festival, this gives as an intimate insight into a part of life we don’t often see, in this case a glimpse inside Iran, commenting on the status of women along the way. It’s slow, meandering, but also funny and interesting.