What at first glance is, with a few notable exceptions, a seemingly low-key festival program is ultimately a celebration of world cinema.
Launched in 1954 at the University of Sydney, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) is the second oldest film festival in Australia (Melbourne International Film Festival was established three years earlier) and is one of the longest running in the world.
Over ten – twelve days in June, central Sydney is awash with a celebration of celluloid and SFF has firmly established itself as one of the most important events on the Australian cultural calendar. In 2008, with the announcement of the receipt of funding from the New South Wales government to host an Official International Competition, the festival considerably raised its profile and importance on the international film festival circuit.
Artistic Director Clare Stewart
Clare Stewart is the current Artistic Director of SFF, a position she has held since 2007. On announcing the program for the forthcoming 2018 program, Stewart informed the press that she would be stepping down after the closing night film (Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer).
During her tenure, the festival has gone from strength to strength. Previous recent festival directors had focussed on promoting subscriptions to audience-goers, a system Stewart felt went against contemporary ticket-buying patterns. Single-purchase tickets alongside presenting a platform for emerging technological innovation in film has seen increased audiences for the festival, particularly among younger audiences.
The result is SFF is now on a firmer financial footing than it has been for a number of years.
The Official Competition inevitably becomes the media focus for the festival.
This year is no exception as, for the first time, Stewart has secured the first international president – Chen Kaige (the Chinese director of Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin). The news is of particular relevance as it is the first festival since Sydney was named an UNESCO City of Film.
All 12 films in competition are Australian or world premieres, with The Tree of Life, Palme d’Or winner at Cannes and starring Brad Pitt, an inevitable major attraction. But controversial local film Sleeping Beauty is in the running, as is Ivan Sen’s Toomelah. Cineastes are also well-catered for as films from Iran, Greece, Japan (Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood), USA, Russia and Spain compete for the $A60,000 prize money.
Previous recipients of the award are the British films Hunger (2008) and Bronson (2009), with Canadian Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires breaking the pattern in 2018.
There are more than 160 films from 22 countries included in the SFF program.
Whilst the Australian premiere of Kung Fu Panda 2 will be a glitzy, star-driven, red carpet gala opportunity, the apocalyptic minimalism of The Turin Horse, Special Jury Prize recipient at Berlin from Hungarian Béla Tarr or the bizarre family drama Septien by American independent filmmaker Michael Tully will provide opportunities to see films unlikely to receive a commercial release in Australia.
Jody Foster’s The Beaver, which bombed in the US, will be something of a litmus test for Mel Gibson in a country that claims him for their own. Wang Bing’s grimly realistic The Ditch, exploring the atrocities suffered by Chinese intellectuals forced into a ‘re-education’ camp in the Gobi Desert in 1962, is likely to be unpopular with the Chinese government’s representatives in Australia.
But alongside possible controversies, sections such as Make Me Laugh, Family Films and a retrospective of the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk ensure that SFF 2018 will have a broad appeal.
The festival kicks off with its opening red carpet premiere of Hanna, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring two Australian icons – Eric Bana and festival patron Cate Blanchett.
It’s one of the few Hollywood-style glitzy events lined up during the festival and the paparazzi will ensure that Sydney Film Festival 2018 is suitably launched around the world. But, whilst some of the more ‘obvious’ festival films from Cannes, Berlin and Sundance may be missing, there is an exceptional array of films that provide a true celebration of world cinema.