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Zana, Sydney Film Festival
Photograph: SuppliedZana, Sydney Film Festival

What to watch at the Sydney Film Festival

Four fascinating movies that centre on women are SFF highlights

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

For the first time in history, the Sydney Film Festival is in full flow not IRL, but online. The highlight of the city’s movie-watching calendar has taken the switch in its stride, fielding a program that is stronger than might have reasonably been expected.

One of the absolute gems is 'Our Law', a short but powerful doco detailing the dedicated work of two First Nations cops working in a remote WA community where trust in the police was in short supply. Over the weekend, we stocked up on four more films that are well worth seeing before SFF’s digital doors on June 21.

Sticking on the documentary front, and the theme of community-building resilience, Women of Steel is a fist-bumping, fired-up feminist treat. It traces the 14-year fight of a group of indomitable Wollongong women who took on the might of mining and metalworks behemoth BHP for the right to work alongside men and, remarkably, won.

Women of Steel, Sydney Film Festival
Women of Steel, Sydney Film Festival Photograph: Supplied

Director Robynne Murphy was one of those women, and her passion project rightly celebrate a thrilling part of Australian history everyone should know, as the women’s lib movement hit back hard against condescending and cruel patriarchy. While it may follow a pretty simple talking heads set-up, the women in question are fierce and funny companions, with particularly interesting input from women drawn from the town’s considerable migrant population. The result is as riveting as it is rollicking.

A Hundred Years of Happiness is a beautifully shot, slow-wheeling observational doco about 21-year-old Vietnamese woman Tram’s arranged marriage to an older South Korean man she has never met. He does not speak her language, and, indeed, is never named in the doco. With Tram's plans to study in Australia falling through, the realities of her farming family’s impoverished life mean they see this as her next best option – not only to secure her future now, but also that of her parents in their old age.

A Hundred Years of Happiness, Sydney Film Festival
A Hundred Years of Happiness, Sydney Film Festival Photograph: Supplied

Director Jakeb Anhvu takes a back seat, letting the drama of the wedding planning and resulting ceremony wash over us, interspersing this with bucolic images of the land set to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. The weight of necessity hangs heavy in the final straight. An interesting insight, if a little thinly drawn, the meditative pace brings its own rewards.

Swedish filmmaker Amanda Kernell’s debut feature Sami Blood was nominated for Best Narrative Feature at the 2017 SFF, and her follow-up Charter does not disappoint. Hung on a gripping, emotionally complex central turn by Ane Dahl Torp (The Wave), she plays distressed mum Alice. Fronting up at her ex-husband’s home in a remote, snowbound town after months of being denied access to her two kids during an ugly custody battle, she grabs them out of school and flees to the sun-soaked beauty of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Charter, Sydney Film Festival
Charter, Sydney Film Festival Photograph: Supplied

Daughter Elina (an also brilliant Tintin Poggats Sarri), is far from impressed, but is that just the nature of the fraught bond between estranged mother and teenaged daughter? Is Alice’s ex physically or psychologically abusive? Is she a ‘good’ mother? Who do the kids really want to be with, and why? Kernell expertly keeps us guessing, with Torp lending nuance to the clash between Alice’s free spirit and her parental responsibility.

Zana is a tense psychological and occasionally supernatural drama playing out against the backdrop of a small village still haunted by the unimaginable losses inflicted on its rural population by the Kosovo war. That tragedy hangs heavy in the heart and head of Lume (a remarkable Adriana Matoshi), a woman whose four-year-old daughter was killed in that conflict. Under pressure to move on, her husband pressures her for another child. His mother, suspecting a curse is upon them, pushes Lume, disturbed by nightmare visions, to seek spiritual help from possible spooky charlatans.

Gripping stuff, this is the debut feature of Kosovo-born, LA-based writer/director Antoneta Kastrati, who spent a decade making docos on the after-effects of the war. Zana disorients us with the howls of a mind shattered by PTSD, a story we are more used to seeing from a soldier’s perspective. As a result, it feels fresh, visceral and vital.

Want to delve deeper? Read more about this years Sydney Film Festival program here.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Judith Neilson Institute Logo
Image: Supplied


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