For almost 50 years many Sydneysiders have religiously trundled along for two weeks in June for the Sydney Film Festival. When I speak to festival director, Gayle Lake, the off-screen organising frenzy is at its peak and the on-screen frenzy is soon to begin.

It’s been an interesting year on many fronts, with substantial changes to global production, distribution and sponsorship since September 11, says Lake. There is less money around but expectations of value for money from subscribers and sponsors is higher than ever.

Despite these pressures, Lake is confident that the current arrangements have widened the accessibility and relevance of the festival to new audiences, not to mention the size of the program.

[It’s] a meaty, hefty haul for the audience of over 60 shorts, features and docos, Lake says. Award winning films, comedies, noir, a silent film and more all clustered around the general theme of contemporary world cinema and peace and reconciliation.

This year the Sydney Film Festival, in partnership with the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), will host an international Critics Jury to award a prize for a documentary. Most major film festivals around the world have FIPRESCI juries. The FIPRESCI award recognizes and confirms the long tradition the festival has of screening strong and innovative documentaries.

Lake insists this year’s program is very different to last year and that it is strengthened by what she calls the variety of entry points. Like last year, this year’s festival includes a number of special screenings and a retrospective.

A must, especially for French cinephiles, she says, is the retrospective of the work of Jean Eustache, member of the French post-New Wave and colleague of Jean-Luc Godard. Eustache, who shot himself at age 42 in 1981, is best known outside France for his four-hour black and white 1973 film La Maman Et La Putaine (The Mother And The Whore). The film is about sex, love and the events of May 1968, won the Cannes Special Jury Prize and shared the International Critics Prize at Cannes. As well as screenings of Eustache’s work, tribute films made by his close friends Philippe Garrel and Angel Diaz will also screen.

Lake is also particularly excited to have a special presentation in the State Theatre of Martin Scorsese’s personal reflection on Italian cinema, the documentary Il Mio Viaggio In Italia (My Voyage to Italy). Scorsese takes us on back to Italy and his Sicilian roots. We are treated to an impassioned tour of Italian cinema by a master filmmaker, says Lake.

At this point Lake shares with me her personal love of long films, evident in her choice of the 180-minute Indian documentary War And Peace as well as the monumental Italian silent feature Cabiria, made by Giovanni Pastrone in 1914. According to Lake Cabiria is a classic, landmark film, 164 minutes long and set during the Punic Wars in Carthage in the third century BC. As in past years, the screening will be accompanied by a live pianist and this year the honour falls to Ron West.

Of great interest to the gay and lesbian community will be the first official Sydney screening of The Laramie Project, which received acclaim at both the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. This is a film based on the acclaimed off-Broadway play adapted for the screen by Moises Kaufman about the brutal murder in 1998 of 21-year-old gay student Matthew Shepard. Dialogue in the original play was drawn word-for-word from interviews with townspeople and friends of Shepard. Actor-researchers played themselves in the original cast, raising ethical concerns about representation and authenticity both on- and off-stage. The film moves further into the realm of faction, with name actors such as Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Steve Buscemi and Christina Ricci taking lead roles.

It is a controversial step, Lake says, but nonetheless it will take you on a very emotional journey whilst exploring intolerance and what drives people to commit such acts of violence.

Lake says that this year’s festival crop of queer cinema is meagre because there isn’t that much good gay and lesbian work around. However, she says that audiences will enjoy three documentaries: Marlene Dietrich -“ Her Own Song made by her grandson David Riga using unpublished material; Georgie Girl an intimate portrayal of the world’s first transsexual MP, New Zealand’s own Georgina Beyer; and All About My Father, winner of a Teddy Award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, which tells the story of a Norwegian doctor and self-described transvestite through the eyes of the son who directs the film.

Lake lists as her festival picks the dark and violent film Bad Guy, directed by Korean Kim Ki-duk; Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham, a sort of cross between Billy Elliott and East Is East; The Slaughter Rule, the feature debut by American film-making twins Alex and Andrew Smith; Tony Gatlif’s (Latcho Drom, Vengo) new film, Swing; and the Japanese psycho-thrillers Dark Water, directed by Hideo Nakata (The Ring, Ring II) and The Happiness Of The Katakuris directed by Mike Takashi.

As well as a huge crop of new cinema from Asia, Europe and South America there are the Annual Dendy Awards for Australian short films and a strong Australian contingent including the world premiere of Black And White, directed by Craig Lahiff from a screenplay written by Louis Nowra. The film is based on the true story of Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man who was convicted and gaoled for the murder of a white girl in South Australia in 1958. The film stars Robert Carlyle, Kerry Fox, David Ngoombujarra, Charles Dance and Chris Haywood. Black And White has been selected to open the festival because, according to Lake although set in 1958 the film deals with political corruption, the police and racism -¦ [all] relevant to a contemporary audience.

The Sydney Film Festival opens on Friday 7 June with the screening of Black And White followed by a big party at Star Court, Sussex Street. The closing night film to be screened on Friday 21 June is the Mexican hit with a homoerotic touch, Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too).


Tickets are available from Ticketmaster7, from the festival office on 9966 3844, the State Theatre or Dendy Opera Quays. You can buy single tickets or in bundles of four or ten. If you’re really lucky, you can purchase them at the door of the respective venue on the day.

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