Having suffered from a decade of leadership that ranged from lackluster to inept, and eclipsed during that time by rival events in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, 2008 ranked as something of a make-or-break year for the Sydney Film Festival. It saw, among other things, a substantial rise in state funding, and, as an emblem of this renewed confidence, the launch of a new international competition. It also marked the sophomore outing for new Artistic Director Clare Stewart, upon whose shoulders many hopes for the festival's resurrection have come to rest.
Still lacking a name (annoyingly, my own suggestion - "the Golden Prawn" - went unheeded), the inaugural SFF Competition seemed at first glance a wildly uneven playing field, pitting consecrated world auteurs (Mike Leigh, with "Happy-Go-Lucky") against hot young neophytes (Steve McQueen, fresh from his Cannes Camera d'Or with "Hunger", Martin McDonagh with "In Bruges"), one or two FIPRESCI-anointed nothings (Fernando Eimbecke's "Lake Tahoe"), and some well-travelled fest favorites (Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg", Carlos Reygadas's "Silent Light").
Scattered among this miscellany, meanwhile - of lesser renown, and easily overlooked - were two Australian features, each making their world premiere. But while neither wound up garlanded with laurels (with numbing inevitability, the Golden Prawn ended up going, by unanimous decision, to "Hunger"), each turned out to be capable of holding their own among their more worldly peers.
Better known as an actor, not to mention the son of one of the country's most beloved TV personalities, Matthew Newtown's debut feature as writer-director, "Three Blind Mice", wore its influences rather plainly on its sleeve: it was, essentially, Robert Towne's "The Last Detail" crossed with John Cassavetes' "Husbands". Yet somehow, it managed to become something rich and rewarding in its own right, thanks to its breezy assurance, its continually surprising (or, if you prefer, wayward) script, and a raft of compelling performances - from Marcus Graham, various local veterans (Jacqui Weaver, Bud Tingwell, Barry Otto), and, notably, from Newton himself.
Set over the course of a single night in Sydney, among three RAN sailors prepared to ship out for the Gulf in the morning, it paused every so often in its picaresque to test various notions of Australian masculinity - and unsurprisingly, found most of them wanting. But it did so with real insight and a laconic, very homegrown sense of humour. Though uneven, and occasionally undisciplined, it nevertheless marked its maker as a talent to watch.
The other Competition entry, Nash Edgerton's "The Square", was very different: tense, meticulously planned, rigorously controlled, a clammy thriller about suburban infidelity and its consequences - which spiral badly out of control for all involved, yet never for a moment slip the firm reins of its director and co-writers (Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner).
Likened to Anthony Mann in the program notes, it actually reminded me more of Don Siegel, and B-movie classics like "The Line-Up": the kind of film in which barely a frame is wasted, every action tows a long chain of consequences, and which maintains its momentum, and steady sense of foreboding, to the very final shot.
Though markedly dissimilar in style, what these two films shared was a fascination, bordering almost upon the forensic, with what it meant to be a man, and to live and act in a male-dominated world. It was amusing, therefore, to overhear a number of viewers expressing alarm about their unabashed "masculinity". As if engorged audience-members might erupt onto the street and start indiscriminately molesting passers-by.
For some of us, though, they offered hope that, after more than a decade in which Australian cinema - at least in its international manifestations - became synonymous with camp, caricature and superficiality, there was a willingness on the part of filmmakers to once again engage with something resembling real life, and to address actual human emotions. With nary a sequin or red velvet curtain in sight.
Overall, the festival was more successful than not. Conventional wisdom had it that Stewart, a former curator at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image in Melbourne, would be strong on retrospectives and lighter on world cinema; in fact, the opposite has turned out to be the case. Her core programming is both thoughtful and alert, combining a keen awareness of arthouse and foreign-language fare, with a sneaky commercial savvy. (Securing "Kung Fu Panda" as a gala - with Jack Black in attendance - was a definite coup.) You sense, underlining all her activities, her keen awareness of the need to expand the SFF's core audience - many of whom have appear to have been occupying the same seats since the Pliocene Epoch - if the event is to weather their extinction.
Thus, there were strands of music-based films, forays into digital production and gaming technology, and a entire sidebar ("Apocalypse Again") devoted to films inspired by the US intervention in Iraq, from docs like "Taxi to the Dark Side," "No End In Sight" and "Standard Operating Procedure", to features like "Grace Is Gone" and "Stop-Loss" - curated by a real, live American, expatriate Variety critic Eddie Cockrell. All welcome attempts to engage with the real world.
Yet ironically, these strengths only made the retrospective program seem more half-hearted. Last year, the focus was on John Huston, with most of the greatest hits duly accounted-for; this year's showcase was dedicated to Deborah Kerr, one of the most complex and unknowable of screen heroines. ("I came [to Hollywood] to act," she once sighed, "but it turned out all I had to do was to be high-minded, long-suffering, white-gloved and decorative.")
However the selection made curiously little of the brittle sexual hysteria and underlying class-consciousness that were Kerr's defining characteristics; nor did it make any attempt to deepen our knowledge of her, either by illuminating contemporary contexts, or by teasing out modern-day correlatives (pairing "The Innocents", for example, with Nicole Kidman's distinctly Kerr-inspired turn in "The Others"). Instead, we were given a bunch of films that, while indisputably great, also tend to pop up with monotonous regularity on TV - "An Affair to Remember", "Black Narcissus", "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "From Here to Eternity"... On this score, at least, it could do better, and doubtless will.