Revised views of harsh interiors and fresh perspectives on global interactions mark Australia’s contribution to the 61st BFI London Film Festival, with two features in official competition and a bevy of other titles joining the festival’s usual array of art cinema and genre fare from across the globe.
Eight years after treating LFF to his Cannes Camera d’Or winning feature debut Samson & Delilah (2009), Warwick Thornton returns to London with Sweet Country, itself fresh from winning the Special Jury Prize at Venice.
In 1929, an Aboriginal stockman (Hamilton Morris) shoots a white settler (Ewan Leslie), sparking a chase across the Northern Territory’s MacDonnell Ranges. In pursuit is a religious landowner (Sam Neill) fearing ‘frontier retribution’, and a local constable (Bryan Brown) intent on bringing the man to justice.
CHAUKA, PLEASE TELL US THE TIME
Joining Sweet Country in competition at LFF 2017 is the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, which offers an unprecedented glimpse inside the Manus Regional Processing Centre, an offshore facility established by the Australian Government in order to ‘process’ asylum seekers who attempt to enter the country via boat.
The film is a collaboration between Dutch-Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani and detained Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose clandestine mobile phone footage offers an opportunity for detainees to share their stories of abuse and violence within the camp. Meanwhile, footage shot outside the centre gives much needed voice to the residents of Manus Island itself. Continuing Australia’s strong showing in the documentary strand at LFF, Chauka appears in competition just two years after Jennifer Peedom won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary for Sherpa, and a year after Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum drew much needed international attention to Australia’s highly contentious refugee policy.
MOUNTAIN / ROLLER DREAMS
Speaking of Jen Peedom, she too returns to LFF with another feature, Mountain, a documentary charting humanity’s relationship with Earth’s highest peaks, and a audio-visual collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Mixing archive footage with her own breathtaking imagery, Peedom’s film is narrated by Willem Dafoe, reading a script by British landscape writer Robert Macfarlane.
Another internationally-inclined, but Australian-produced doco at LFF 2017 is Roller Dreams (d. Kate Hickey). A glance back at a key cultural moment on the opposite shores of the Pacific, it reconstructs the vibrant 1980s roller-dancing scene that flourished in California’s ‘slum by the sea’ Venice Beach. The content and director may be American, but the film is produced by two Australians; LA-based Diana Ward, and Cecilia Ritchie from Australian-based Aquarius Films.
Mountain scales some of London’s biggest screens as part of LFF’s Thrill strand (with future UK distribution handled by Dogwoof), whilst Roller Dreams spins its way through two screenings in the Love strand (and is yet to pick up UK distribution).
DAVID STRATTON: A CINEMATIC LIFE
Perhaps the perfect film for avid followers of The Far Paradise, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life (d. Sally Aitkin) is a documentary portrait of one of Australia’s most respected critics, and the films that shaped his life, most notably the Australian cinema of which he has been so supportive over the decades.
Blending archival footage, clips from over 100 Australian films, and tributes from the great and good of the Australian industry, this documentary traces Stratton’s life from his childhood in Wiltshire, through his two-decade stewardship of the Sydney Film Festival, to his legendary battles with fellow TV critic Margaret Pomeranz. Certainly one not to be missed for fans of Australian cinema.
David Stratton: A Cinematic Life takes centre stage for two screenings as part of LFF’s Create strand, with no word yet on UK distribution.
KING OF PEKING / THE WHITE GIRL / BAD GENIUS
Australia’s cinematic interactions with its near neighbours continues in a trio of new features set in East Asia. Picking up on the cinephilic vibe of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, Sam Voutas’ gentle comedy King of Peking [Jing Cheng Zhi Wang] follows a father and his young son who take to film piracy after their Beijing film projection business goes up in flames.
Similarly off-beat is The White Girl, a ‘tropical-noir fairytale’ set in the last remaining fishing village in Hong Kong. Cross-cultural encounters, both on and off screen, have come to mark many of the collaborations undertaken by redoubtable Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and The White Girl is no different. Here, Doyle shares writer-director credit with first-timer Jenny Suen, with whom he had previously collaborated on the 2015 pseudo-documentary Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous.
Taking a rather different tone is Bad Genius (d. Nattawut Poonpiriya), which follows a young Thai student whose cheating-on-demand service goes global in an unlikely teen thriller about entrance exams, partially set in Sydney.
King of Peking screens twice in LFF’s Laugh strand, and The White Girl has three outings under the Journey umbrella, whilst Bad Genius is twice tested in the Thrill strand. All three are currently without UK distribution.
Hoping to ride the recent wave of contemporary Australian crime drama is 1%, the feature debut for director Stephen McCallum, and the second feature for actor-writer (ex-rugby league professional) Matt Nable following 2007 rugby drama The Final Winter. Set amidst the fraternal milieu of Australia’s notorious motorcycle gangs, 1% stars Ryan Corr (Holding the Man, Wolf Creek 2, Cleverman) as interim leader of The Copperheads, whose tenuous grip on control is thrown into chaos on the eve of the release of the gang’s leader Knuck (Nable).
1% gets a trio of outings as part of the Thrill strand, with no word yet on UK distribution.
In 2015, a consortium of Australian and German art galleries commissioned a 13-channel video installation by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, in which the inimitable Cate Blanchett acts her way through thirteen impeccably-staged ideational provocations, from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848, through to Jim Jarmush’s 2004 statement on the ‘golden rules of filmmaking’. Collated together into a single-screen work, with additional tweaks by Rosefeldt, the 2017 version of Manifesto is a dizzying spin through some of the most important ideas of the twentieth century.
Australian filmmakers also contribute a handful of shorts to LFF 2017. Fysh (d. Billie Pleffer) – ‘the story of an old man and a fish that changed his life’ – is in competition for the LFF Short Film Award, and also plays on the short comedy strand Gits and Shiggles. Australian actress (and daughter of Jane Campion) Alice Englert brings her sophomore short as writer-director to London, with Family Happiness – a tale of sibling reminiscence starring Englert and Ben Wishaw – playing the Love strand shorts session, Like a Heartbeat Drives You Mad.
Meanwhile, the Dare strand’s shorts programme My Loneliness is Killing Me will play host to -everyman (d. John Angus Stewart), which promises drunk and desperate man in search of a connection, in this ‘field recording, dramatised’. Finally, London-based Australian artist Pia Borg presents her latest short Silica, a mediation on Australian landscapes used for both gemstone mining and sci-fi filmmaking, which plays in the Experimenta Strand on a programme with films by Emily Wardill and others.
The 61st BFI London Film Festival runs from 4-15 October 2017, at venues in the West End and across London. Tickets go on sale to the general public from September 15, with priority booking already open for BFI Champions and Members, as well as American Express cardholders.