Zola / Credit: Supplied

Calling all film buffs! Today, the 68th Sydney Film Festival today announced a sneak peek of its lineup up of feature films and documentaries. Over 11 days – August 18 to 29 – independent creatives and local and international filmmakers will have their work project onto the silver screen. The exciting season will see a flurry of premieres, red-carpet openings, in-depth discussions and film guests. Furthermore, it’s one of the globes longest-running film festivals.

The full program will be revealed from June 21. In the interim you can peruse the highlights below and buy tickets, here.

DEAR COMRADES!
The great Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (The Postman’s White Nights, SFF 2015) has made a monochrome masterpiece examining a historical massacre. Special Jury Prize, Venice 2020.
Dear Comrades! is based on the true events of the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962, information of which was hidden for decades. Lyudmila is a loyal Communist Party official who toes the party line and is dead set against dissent. When the army is sent to suppress a labour strike, the soldiers open fire, killing and wounding many workers. In the ensuing chaos people go missing, and Lyudmila’s fiery teenage daughter Svetka is amongst them. Lyudmila embarks on a dangerous and desperate search, but the cover-up takes hold and non-compliance is swiftly punished. Now in his eighties, Konchalovsky won his first prize in Venice for a short film in 1962. Nearly six decades later his new film is vibrant, angry, occasionally humorous and as vital as ever.

HIVE
Winner of three major awards at Sundance 2021, this outstanding drama is based on the true story of a Kosovo war widow fighting against patriarchy.
The debut feature by Kosovo-born filmmaker Blerta Basholli is inspired by real-life beekeeper Fahrije Hoti. Seven years after Fahrije’s husband went missing in the Kosovo War, she is struggling to provide for her two children. Her plan to establish a women’s co-operative and sell ajvar (pepper relish) is met with scorn by men in her village. In this patriarchal place, a woman’s morals can be questioned for even the slightest show of independence. But Fahrije is no ordinary woman. Basholli’s lean, punchy script and Yllka Gashi’s superbly controlled central performance bring the legacy of war and the strength of women into sharp and rewarding focus.

MEMORY BOX
A mysterious package connects three generations of women from 1980s Beirut to modern-day Montreal in this stylish meditation on history and memory. In Competition, Berlinale 2021.
Memory Box is the first narrative feature in nine years by award-winning team Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (A Perfect Day, SFF 2006) and the first Lebanese contender in the Berlinale Competition in four decades. A large carton from France suddenly lands on the Montreal doorstep of Maia and her teenage daughter Alex. Inside are diaries, photos and cassettes detailing every aspect of Maia’s teenage life during the Lebanese Civil War. While the past is too painful for Maia to revisit, Alex secretly goes through the contents, which come to life in beautifully crafted flashbacks. Loosely based on Hadjithomas’s teenage letters and diaries, the film illuminates the role memory plays in shaping our lives.

MY BEST PART
Nicolas Maury (Call My Agent!) directs and stars alongside French icon Nathalie Baye in the bittersweet tale of a highly-strung actor and his doting mother.
Parisian actor Jérémie Meyer’s life is falling apart. He’s just been overlooked for a prized film role, and his fed-up boyfriend has called time on their relationship. Wracked by uncontrollable jealousy – “I feed on my own poison” – Jérémie escapes to his mother’s house in the lush woodlands of Saint-Auvent in Limousin. Can he find new romance with mum’s hunky new assistant? Or will his insecurities prove too much for even his adoring mother to bear? This frank and wickedly funny human drama features marvellous performances by Maury as the fragile son and Baye as the supportive mother whose slowly revealed past brings rich emotional complexity.

NIGHT OF THE KINGS
Philippe Lacôte’s multiple award-winning drama blends myth, ritual, magic and politics in the tale of a young prisoner in Côte d’Ivoire who must tell an epic story to save his life.
There has never been a prison movie like this before. A major hit at festivals including Venice and Toronto, and the winner of 11 international awards, Night of the Kings begins with Lacôte’s intimate knowledge of Côte d’Ivoire’s notorious La MACA prison. When a frightened young pickpocket arrives at La MACA he’s chosen to fulfil the role of “Roman” (storyteller), a key player in the transition of power from one dominant inmate to the next. On the night of the red moon Roman must entertain his audience until dawn or face deadly consequences. Song, dance, improvised drama and flashbacks to Côte d’Ivoire’s turbulent past are woven into Lacôte’s stunningly original and utterly compelling cinematic virtuoso piece.

NIGHT RAIDERS
A thrilling sci-fi tale of Indigenous resistance directed by Cree/Métis woman Danis Goulet and executive produced by Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, SFF 2014). Selected Berlinale 2021.
In the not-too-distant future, all children have become property of the state. They are forced to fight in wars for ever-draining resources. To avoid this fate, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, SFF 2019) and daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) live off the grid. But when mother and daughter are forced to seek medical help, tough decisions must be made. The fight for future generations, Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity beats at the heart of Danis Goulet’s dystopian feature debut. In this joint Canada-New Zealand production, Goulet skillfully reminds us that First Nations peoples around the world were all too familiar with the trappings of dystopia long before the genre became popular.

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RIDERS OF JUSTICE
Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round, SFF Summer Season 2021) stars in this furiously entertaining, wonderfully eccentric and big-hearted crime-comedy.
Markus (Mikkelsen) is a career soldier whose wife dies in a train “accident”. Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are socially awkward tech nerds who convince Markus that foul play was involved, and sign up to help him wipe out the perpetrators. Then there’s Markus’ teenage daughter Mathilde. She thinks the oddball trio are crisis counsellors helping her to connect with her emotionally stitched-up dad when she needs him most. Hilarious one moment, affecting the next and spectacularly action-packed in between, this fabulous rollercoaster ride marks the fifth and arguably best collaboration between Mikkelsen and Oscar-winning writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen.

SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD
This heartfelt tribute to the music and lyrics of the Smiths tells the story of a fan who, devastated by the band’s split, hijacks a local radio station. Inspired by true events.
In Denver, 1987, a group of teenagers are shattered by the news their favourite band, the Smiths, are breaking up. Cleo (Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline, The Wilds) wants nothing more than to leave her humdrum life behind and live in Paris. Awkward record store employee Dean (Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood, SFF 2014) is in love with Cleo but unable to express his feelings. While his friends go into mourning, Dean takes radical action. He hijacks the local radio station and forces the DJ (Joe Manganiello, True Blood, Magic Mike) to play only Smiths songs – all night. Director Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, SFF 2007) uses a plethora of original Smiths songs to beautifully capture a time where being a fan was a way of life.

SWAN SONG
A fabulously snippy hairdresser (screen legend Udo Kier; Bacurau, SFF 2019) escapes his nursing home and treks across small-town Ohio to fulfil the dying wish of a former client.
Once upon a time every society lady in Sandusky, Ohio, flocked to the salon of hair magician and drag queen Pat Pitsenbarger (Kier). But that was thirty years ago, before “the Liberace of Sandusky” lost everything – including the love of his life. The despondent Pat seems destined to end his days in a retirement home. That’s until he’s informed that a rich former client has posthumously nominated him to style her funeral hairdo. What follows is a poignant and often uproariously funny odyssey. Pat seeks out the old-school supplies he needs – while visiting people and places from a time long before the rainbow flag flew openly in Sandusky. Kier, in the performance of his life, is simply superb and the soundtrack rocks.

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THE APE STAR
An offbeat animated delight about outsiders and unconventional love from Swedish director Linda Hambäck. Adapted from Frida Nilsson’s award-winning novel.
This charming animated feature, which premiered at the Berlinale, is the story of orphan girl Jonna whose one wish is to have a family. When a large gorilla adopts Jonna it seems a dubious mismatch. The pair quickly bond, much to the surprise of the local authorities who try to separate them. Jonna and Gorilla must fight to prove they are a family so they can stay together. But will they succeed? Swedish stars Pernilla August (Star Wars) and Stellan Skarsgård (In Order of Disappearance SFF 2014; Thor) give stellar voice performances as the main characters, adding to the rich and detailed world created by Hambäck. The Ape Star is a story about love and family that’s suitable for all ages.

THE BETA TEST
A secret sexual encounter triggers an existential nightmare for a Hollywood agent in this riveting social horror from Jim Cummings (Thunder Road) and PJ McCabe.
The Beta Test is a pulsating combination of crime mystery, Hollywood satire, erotic thriller and fevered psycho-horror. It centres on Jordan Hines (Cummings, superb), a smarmy, image-obsessed talent agency shark. On the eve of his wedding, he receives a purple envelope inviting him to a thrilling “no-strings-attached” sexual encounter. He’s unable to resist, and so begins a snowballing series of events that catapult Hines into the toxic netherworld of LA and into the black hole of his own sociopathic existence. As his anxiety and paranoia escalate to dizzying, semi-surreal heights, the impression is that Hines would gladly sell his soul to find out who sent that purple envelope – if only he had a soul left to sell.

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THE JUSTICE OF BUNNY KING
Essie Davis (The Babadook, SFF 2019) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) shine in a powerful social drama about a single mother battling the system and her troubled past.
The lights of Bunny King’s life are young daughter Shannon and teenage son Reuben. The darkness in Bunny’s life is a tragic incident that forced her children into foster care. It left her virtually penniless and sleeping on her sister’s couch. While desperately attempting to secure accommodation that will reunite her with her kids, Bunny rescues teenage niece Tonyah from a gravely dangerous situation. Together, fiery-tempered Bunny and frightened Tonyah embark on a wild quest. Their mission? To have their voices heard – and for justice to be served. The spirit of social realist cinema is alive and well in this compassionate and propulsive feature debut by Kiwi director Gaysorn Thavat.

THERE IS NO EVIL
Banned from making films in Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof won the Berlinale Golden Bear for this powerful take on the death penalty and its impact on Iranian society.
Over the past decade Rasoulof (A Man of Integrity, SFF 2017) has faced various legal difficulties and prison sentences. There Is No Evil is inspired by the moment he saw one of his former interrogators at the bank. At first angered, Rasoulof decided to follow his adversary around – which led him to contemplate the role of individuals in an autocratic state. Through four thematically linked stories about people facing complex dilemmas, Rasoulof captures a society profoundly affected by capital punishment. Characteristically intelligent and provocative, Rasoulof imbues each story with a sense of mystery and moral complexity, resulting in an uncompromising film of great power.

UNDINE
Romance and the supernatural combine in Christian Petzold’s (Phoenix, SFF 2015; Transit, SFF 2018) playful and enigmatic film starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski.
The myth of the water sprite yearning to live on land – and only enabled to do so through true love – underpins Petzold’s sensual and passionate film. We meet Undine (Beer, Never Look Away, SFF 2018; Transit), a Berlin historian and guide, as she endures a breakup with her lover Johannes. Undine’s reaction is far from usual. She informs Johannes that if he betrays her, she will have to kill him, and then return to the water from where she came. Undine’s explosive meeting with a professional diver named Christoph (Rogowski, Victoria, SFF 2015; Transit) sets the rules governing her life into disarray, as they embark on a romance that could change everything.

WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s intimate psychodrama (Silver Bear, Berlinale 2021) features a triptych of stories about three coincidences and three complicated women.
Director Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, 2015) is a master of twisting expectations. Each story is a collision between two people, leading to shocking and unexpectedly moving outcomes. A model gossips with her friend about a relationship that is closer to home than either of them could have anticipated. A mature age student sets a honey trap for a professor, only to be confronted by his candour. The final story, shot during Japan’s COVID lockdown, is set in the near future. Two women, separated for decades, reunite in an emptied Tokyo – before making a startling discovery. These magical tales of chance and desire are tempered by Hamaguchi’s naturalistic style – each not-quite romance fully conveys the messy, miraculous nature of life.

ZOLA
Based on an infamous 2015 tweetstorm, this exhilarating girl gaze stripper saga stars Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Riley Keough (American Honey) and Nicholas Braun (Succession). Sundance 2020.
In a string of 148 tweets, A’Ziah “Zola” King detailed her falling out with sex worker Jessica during a two-day bender which started in Detroit and ended in Florida’s seedy underbelly. Janicza Bravo stays faithful to the source material, and the result is a high-energy ride where a neat 90-minutes feel like a sweet 140 characters or less. Punctuating the calamitous affair is a Nigerian pimp, a bumbling boyfriend and gangsters packing heat but with no game. The ethereal score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin; Monos, SFF 2019), the seductive fluorescent dreamscape of Aussie cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, SFF 2017) and wardrobe to rival Cardi B’s turns the drama up to eleven.

thoughts?