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Bangarra dancers bathed in blue light
Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud

Sydney Film Festival fields five must-see movies at the State for Syd Fest

Festival director Nashen Moodley shares the power of getting back into the cinema after the uncertainty of the last year

By Hannah-Rose Yee
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Smell the popcorn. Ease yourself into one of the plush velvet seats. Watch the draped curtain slowly pull back... You’re at the movies.

It’s a simple pleasure, but one that is also our great privilege in Sydney. Many cinemas around the world have been shuttered for most of the year – closer to home, our friends in Melbourne were unable to visit theatres during their 112-day lockdown. But this summer, the movies are back and better than ever. As part of Sydney FestivalSydney Film Festival has curated a range of five critically acclaimed films from Australia and around the world for an exciting summer program.

Screening at the State Theatre, it’s a homecoming of sorts after the 2020 program went online mid-year. “We are delighted to invite audiences back to the cinema after a year of devastating closures that have rocked the global film industry,” says Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival. “It’s vital that Sydney Film Festival support local and international filmmakers, and also the cinema experience, during this time, so it gives us great pleasure to screen these incredible films at the iconic State Theatre once more.”

Here’s our rundown on the fab five films lighting up the screen in Sydney Film Festival’s fantastic summer program. But get in quick before tickets are all gone. 

Bangarra dancers perform in smoke in front of a huge circle hung above the stage
Bangarra dancers perform in smoke in front of a huge circle hung above the stage
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

1. Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra

More than 30 years since its inception, Bangarra Dance Theatre is one of the world’s foremost cultural organisations and an integral part of our artistic landscape, celebrating First Nations stories and art on a global stage. This documentary, helmed by The Sapphires filmmaker Wayne Blair and co-director Nel Minchin, is an empowering film sensitively told, combining dance performances with interviews and archival footage to piece together the story of the Page brothers, who built this incredible cultural force. “We’re very excited to open our summer season with Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra,” Moodley says. “It’s an incredibly moving documentary that provides an insight into how Bangarra grew from strength to strength, but also explores deep tragedy and incredible resilience.”

Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggu on horseback in Australian Western High Ground
Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggu on horseback in Australian Western High Ground
Photograph: Supplied/Madman

2. High Ground

A superbly crafted revenge thriller inspired by true events, High Ground is set in the sun-baked Northern Territory in the aftermath of the brutal massacre of an Indigenous community. Simon Baker stars as Travis, a policeman working with a tracker called Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) to locate a First Nations warrior attacking new settlers, but soon realises that Gutjuk is the only survivor of that massacre. And he’s definitely not here to aid Travis – or any other colonial lawmaker, for that matter. A tense Australian western directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy), the powerful film has an indelible message about our own shameful history. It’s a movie, Moodley says, “that will really stay with you”.

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A man in a red cap with a big stick places a hand on his young son's shoulder
A man in a red cap with a big stick places a hand on his young son's shoulder
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

3. Minari

The runaway hit of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes, Minari is the tale of the American Dream as seen through the eyes of Korean immigrants. Beautifully filmed by director Lee Isaac Chung, it’s a “stunning portrait of a Korean-American family that’s already being spoken of as a hot Oscar contender,” Modley says. Burning star Steven Yuen turns in an incredible performance as Jacob Yi, a father who moves his family to a farm in rural Arkansas in the ‘80s with the dream of providing his young children David (Alan S. Kim, a star in the making) and Anne (Noel Cho) with a better life.

A man drinks from a champagne bottle while drunk teenagers celebrate all around him
A man drinks from a champagne bottle while drunk teenagers celebrate all around him
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

4. Another Round

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen – soon to replace Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise – stars in this conversation-starter about a set of uninspired school teachers who decide to loosen things up in the classroom – by going to work mildly intoxicated. The idea is to kickstart thought processes, reduce their stress and keep them open to all possibilities through their “alcohol-soaked experiment,” Moodley says, but things soon start to get out of hand in this fascinating film, directed by celebrated Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg, who previously worked with Mikkelsen on The Hunt.

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Women pose with surfboards at sunset
Women pose with surfboards at sunset
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

5. Girls Can’t Surf

A good documentary is worth its weight in gold, and this one’s a ripper. It’s a galvinising look at the sexist underbelly of the surfing world in the ‘80s and the trailblazing female surfers who fought to make real change in the sport. Featuring incredible archival footage and interviews with surfers including Australia’s Layne Beachley, US champion Lisa Andersen and Jodie Cooper, the first openly gay female surfer on the world circuit, this doco is a must-watch. “I expect cheering at the State Theatre during the screening,” predicts Moodley.

Want more Sydney Festival top picks?

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