A Watershed Sydney Film Festival
by Stephen Teo
51st Sydney Film Festival (which ran from 11-26 June 2004) ended on a
high note to the tap dancing beat of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. The resplendent
State Theatre, the festival's main venue, quite literally bounced to the
fusion strains of Taiko and the tap-dancing music of the end credits.
The mood was festive and indeed, triumphant, but as the last credit of
the film unrolled, the audience then settled into a valedictory mode as
the festival president Cathy Robinson farewelled festival director Gayle
Lake and the chief executive officer Fiona Allan. For both Lake and Allan,
the occasion must have felt like a vindication of sorts -- a successful
culmination of their attempts to tackle the structural problems of the
Sydney Film Festival by broadening the audience base, using more venues
and shifting into more alternative programming ideas such as Hong Kong
action cinema (including director Chu Yuan's Intimate Confessions of a
Chinese Courtesan and Clans of Intrigue), or the video works of independent
Hong Kong filmmakers from the group known as Videotage, or an emphasis
(even if minuscule and somewhat belated) on the South Korean cinema (Im
Sang-soo's A Good Lawyer's Wife and Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder
were two of the best films shown in the festival). The 51st edition of
SFF may well be regarded as a watershed moment in the recent history of
the festival, laying the foundation on which the newly appointed artistic
director Lynden Barber (a well known critic in Sydney's film circles)
can build upon to fully realize the festival's potential.
Given its many advantages (a beautiful location, a cosmopolitan
multi-cultural community and a well established filmmaking centre), the
Sydney Film Festival could certainly become Australia's pre-eminent film
festival. But it has so far consistently trailed the festivals in Melbourne
and Brisbane in terms of the quality of programming and the regional focus
of both competitors. The 51st edition has come on strongest in the traditional
focus on the documentary, which was also the focus of the Fipresci Jury.
The winner of the Fipresci Prize was Jehane Noujaim's compelling Control
Room, a joint US-Egypt entry about the role played by Al-Jazeera during
the Iraq war. The strong field included Canada's The Corporation directed
by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, Australia's Anthem directed
by Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman, New Zealand's Haunting Douglas directed
by Leanne Pooley, and Canada's Dying at Grace directed by the veteran
documentarist Allan King.
That the documentary is an important film form celebrated
by the SFF is further underlined in its major retrospective of Michelangelo
Antonioni, which included rare screenings of the master's early documentaries
(those he made before be started directing features) and his 1974 Chung
Kuo. The Antonioni retrospective, complete except for I Vinti and The
Passenger, rekindled interest in the master's enigmatic narratives and
his cool, concentrated style. Antonioni, now in his 90s and suffering
the effects of a debilitating stroke, was a major influence on Asian directors
such as Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang.
To this observer, there is a certain irony in noticing that while audiences
were flocking to watch Antonioni's masterpieces over again, one of the
master's true heirs, Tsai Ming-liang, was represented in the festival
by his recent work Goodbye Dragon Inn, which was dismissed as "tedious"
by critics writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and who promptly noted
that the film "emptied the State Theatre more effectively than a
fire alarm". Yet, it's perhaps a sign of the courage of the departing
festival director Gayle Lake and of the challenge ahead for the Sydney
Film Festival that Goodbye Dragon Inn was programmed at all.