Sydney at sixty: Leading Australian film fest has a big impact Down Under

Australia has a small population and film market, but it also has a distinct landscape, indigenous voice and a unique government support system for film funding. Add to this Australians’ passion for the visual arts, in photography, fashion, desig

Australia has a small population and film market, but it also has a distinct landscape, indigenous voice and a unique government support system for film funding. Add to this Australians’ passion for the visual arts, in photography, fashion, design and especially film, and it stands to reason this country “down under” performs well above its fighting weight on the world cinematic stage.

Australian actors with international profiles include Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Chris Hemsworth, Guy Pearce, Nicole Kidman…the list goes on. With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that Sydney, Australia’s largest city, is host to one of the world’s longest-running film festivals.

A long way from its humble beginnings in 1954 at the University of Sydney, 2013 is the 60th anniversary of the Sydney Film Festival, where the city on the harbor opens its doors for screenings, talks and live performances at landmark venues. These include Sydney Town Hall, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Apple Store, Events Cinemas in the heart of the central business district and the Dendy Cinema at Circular Quay, a stone’s throw from Sydney’s famous opera house.

The opulent art-deco State Theatre is the main venue for gala screenings, especially the opening and closing-night films. The festival opened on a balmy winter’s night in Sydney for the red-carpet premiere of Mystery Road. Celebrities included the film’s director Ivan Sen, stars Jack Thompson and Hugo Weaving, and guests Rove McManus and veteran Australian director Gillian Armstrong.

Mystery Road was written and directed by the multi-talented Sen (Beneath Clouds, Toomelah), who also edited and scored the film. It’s a standout, slow-burning cop drama that takes us deep into the social tinderbox of a small town in the Australian Outback. The story follows indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), who returns to his home town to investigate a murder and faces his own cultural alienation. Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) and Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”) co-star.

Weaving also heads the jury for the Official Competition of 12 international entries. Speaking at the Festival’s official launch on May 8, he noted, “Having keenly attended the Sydney Film Festival for many years, always with the eyes of a somewhat excited and hungry child, it will be a great pleasure and honor for me to take up the position of jury president for the 2013 Official Competition and 60th birthday.”

Also at the launch, festival director Nashen Moodley made an AV presentation of selected trailers to give the flavor of the festival, stating the intention was to “represent the state of film today.”

The Festival’s internationally recognized Official Competition awards a $60,000 cash prize, Australia’s richest cash award for film, in recognition of the most “courageous, audacious and cutting-edge” film from the 12 selected. Previous years’ winners include Iran’s A Separation, which won an Academy Award in 2011.

This year the list includes The Broken Circle Breakdown, an intense story of the tensions in a bluegrass music family set against the backdrop of an ordinary American urban town. Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout is a thriller centering on a Mumbai policeman, while Only God Forgives is a stylish, sensual, high-impact drama starring Ryan Gosling and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas. Australia’s entry The Rocket is set in the lush landscape of Laos and centers on a boy who is born a twin and by local tradition is regarded as cursed. His journey to break the curse leads him to enter a rocket-building contest in this warm coming-of-age story. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Biennale winner Child’s Pose from director Calin Peter Netzer are also in the competition line-up. “In both content and form, these 12 films are daring and original,” states Moodley.

There are ten contenders for the Foxtel Australian Documentary Prize, while the International Documentary Competition showcases the compelling Crash Reel, revealing how young skateboarders push themselves to increasingly reckless stunts.

A U.S. documentary has been selected as the Festival’s closing-night film. An audience favorite at Sundance, Twenty Feet from Stardom was directed by Los Angeles–born Morgan Neville. It is the latest in Neville’s homage to America’s modern musical history, this time celebrating the backup singers who aided the success of hundreds of international singing stars from the 1960s to the present.

Like all good film festivals, Sydney offers a smorgasbord of special categories covering a wide range of genres and styles. “Freak Me Out” breaks taboos with six wild and weird films guaranteed to satisfy lovers of schlock-horror. “Sounds on Screen” highlights films that hold music as a central theme and includes Greetings from Tim Buckley, Becoming Traviata and The Stone Roses: Made of Stone. “Screen: Black” showcases contemporary indigenous Australian film, the Dendy Awards present ten Australian short films, and there is a rich slate of 23 British post-war melodramas in the program “Brit Noir.”

“Special Presentations” is a selection of 13 standout contemporary films, many of them fresh from success at international festivals. They include Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried in a powerful turn as the eponymous porn star; Stoker, starring Mia Wasikowska and directed by cult Korean director Park Chan-Wook, and Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, featuring Audrey Tautou in a wonderful visual fantasy that poignantly explores themes of illness and grief.

A U.S. coming-of-age story, The Way, Way Back, stars Steve Carell and Australia’s Toni Collette, while Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy brings Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy together once again in a special consecutive screening.

Director Moodley is excited about the Festival’s role for Australian cinema. “Each year we provide a platform for Australian films and important competitions for shorts and documentaries,” he says. “It’s a jumping-off point for many filmmakers’ careers. And the Festival also brings great cinema from all over the world so that people in Sydney can see what’s going on in contemporary cinema.”

Weaving has seen all sides of the film industry in Australia and America and still chooses to support his home industry by appearing in low-budget movies like tonight’s premiere. He’s sanguine about the difficulties filmmakers are challenged with everywhere.

“For a film to be successful, it depends on so many factors,” he points out. “It can often be down to the producer and how it’s promoted. There are so many wonderful films made around the world, but it’s the luck of the draw and the luck of timing.”