Big names on big screens: the Sydney Film Festival returns

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of The Dog. Image: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

In a tough year, Nashen Moodley, Festival Director of the 68th Sydney Film Festival (SFF), has managed to turn doubt into overachievement. He spoke with the Sentinel about putting this year’s festival together. 

“I would say that, quite frankly, I could never imagine a program as great as this in a single year,” boasts Nashen Moodley, Festival Director, Sydney Film Festival. It’s a fair brag. A perusal of the program yields an impressive list of film industry luminaries and enticing selection of movies. 

Thanks to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the SFF had the luxury of choosing the best films across two years instead of the usual one. 

“I think to have the incredible range of just the greatest filmmakers working today in one festival is so rare. It’s extremely, extremely unusual, and I don’t know if it could be ever emulated,” says Moodley. 

Sydney Film Festival at the State Theatre, Sydney. Image: supplied.

The festival, which normally takes place in June, was rescheduled to August this year to avoid clashes with other international events. 

And then Sydney went into lockdown. 

SFF had to decide whether to cancel altogether or reschedule yet again. Cancelling was arguably the more sensible option but there was a strong desire from team members, filmmakers and audiences to have a festival this year. No mean feat. 

“The loud applause of a live audience cannot be matched by a hand-clap emoji in the comments column of an online stream.”

“It’s extremely tricky for all arts organisations to achieve what we normally achieve, which is, to bring people together in a room,” explains Moodley. “It’s fundamental to what we do. The shared experience of cinema is really vital for film festivals. It’s great for the audience … it’s far more interesting and exciting to watch a film with a lot of people around you. For the filmmakers – can you imagine someone who’s having the world premiere for their film, the very first screening to the public?”

Film still from opening night feature Here Out West. Image: supplied.

The loud applause of a live audience cannot be matched by a hand-clap emoji in the comments column of an online stream. Apart from the diminished experience, it isn’t all that easy to transfer a full festival to a digital platform. 

“It’s more complicated, I feel, than people think. It’s not a matter of saying, well, this is what we would have put in cinema, because we can’t put it in cinema we’re just going to move all those films online.  It’s really far more complex than that.”

A selection of films will be made available on-demand on digital platforms after completion of the live festival. 

This year’s opening film is Here Out West, a true collaboration with five esteemed female directors and a team of eight writers who were part of a Screen Australia initiative. Eight seperate stories are woven together to form a moving, engaging narrative using the multi-timbral voices of Sydney’s diverse social strata.  

“It’s a very beautiful film that also speaks to the great talent we have in Sydney, and Western Sydney in particular, and really puts on the big screen a portrait of a multi-cultural, contemporary Australia that we rarely see on the big screen,” says Moodley. 

The closing film is also an anthology of stories. The French Dispatch, by the inimitable Wes Anderson, is sumptuous and quirky and features an illustrious cast of who’s whos. 

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in The French Dispatch. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, © 2021, 20th Century Studios. All rights reserved.

It’s four stories are connected through an obituary in a French-based American magazine. 

After more than a decade, Jane Campion returns with a powerful, psychological western thriller, The Power of the Dog. Featuring a stellar cast and haunting score by Jonny Greenwood. 

The extraordinary Leah Purcell responds in kind with an equally haunting and totally gripping Australian outback period film, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. In an inventive retelling of the Henry Lawson short story, Purcell crafts a a tale of intrigue and grit with cultural, gender, class, and ethical collisions among its characters. 

As part of the closing night activities, the Documentary Australia Foundation will present the $10,000 cash prize to this year’s winner of the Australian Documentary Award. An unprecedented 12 films are in contention, including many that have already received high accolades internationally. Among them is Under The Volcano, by Sydney local, Gracie Otto, which looks at the halcyon music recording period of the ’80s and the pivotal role played by legendary producer, Sir George Martin, and his AIR Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. 

Official trailer for The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. Video: supplied.

There are 233 films in the 2021 Sydney Film Festival. The 111 feature films, 50 documentaries, and 72 shorts represent the best film making talents from across 69 countries. 

“What we try to do each year is create a program that’s balanced in a range of ways: through geography, through diversity of voices. We want, of course, to have these great names that I was talking about earlier but we also want to introduce the audience to the next generation of greats,” says Moodley. 

“We will be the first major festival to re-open to Sydney audiences, and we’re quite excited about that. We hope it will really be a mark of the re-opening of the cinema business which has had such a torrid time this past two years.”

The 2021 Sydney Film Festival will be in cinemas from 3 – 14  November, 2021, with films also available on demand online from 12 – 21 November, 2021. For full program, film synopses, trailers and tickets, visit sff.org.au.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.