Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Best Australian Documentary Finalists

For its 67th edition, The Sydney Film Festival has returned this year not unchanged, but rather sharpened into something new; with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping cinemas – and the film industry at large – incapacitated, this annual 12-day theatrical celebration has deftly adapted itself within these uncertain times into the Sydney Film Festival: Virtual Edition.

While this new platform may rob audiences of the honest cinematic experience, it’s convenient and user-friendly online interface cuts out all of the difficulties that come with festival attendance; the endless waiting in line, sorting out strict scheduling, missing sold-out screenings and the chance of that one bothersome audience member in the back prattling throughout a film seems like a fair exchange for catching a multitude of Australian and World premieres from the comfort of your own living room.

This year’s slate was aimed at four diverse award showcases: The Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Australian Documentary, Europe! Voices of Women in Film, Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films, and the Screenability program, a compelling avenue for screen practitioners with a disability, made in partnership with Screen NSW.

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Best Australian Documentary Finalists
The Skin of Others (2018) source: Sydney Film Festival

These 33 films, all available to rent separately or in beneficial bundles, each come supplemented with pre-recorded introductions, Q+A sessions, and Industry panels, a valuable accessory that defines the simulated experience of this domestic event.

For the first of several articles detailing the Sydney Film Festival’s digital deviation, I’ll be delving into the ten finalists for The Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Australian Documentary.

Us Against Them

Grouped together under the ‘Documentary Australia Foundation Award’ banner, all but one of the ten Australian finalists showcased this year illuminated women’s voices within film, with an underlying thread of female solidarity, charged towards greater systemic social change.

The single outlier, Tom Murray’s The Skin of Others, still feels equally significant amongst this crop of contenders, sketching a scrupulous biography that vibrates with political acuity and historical import, alternating between fact and fiction to chronicle the life of Aboriginal WWI soldier Douglas Grant.

The tender-hearted rendering of Indigenous representation continues with Cornel Ozies’ Our Law, an intimately ethnographic social portrait that follows the officers in charge of the first-ever all-Indigenous run Police Station, located in the isolated Indigenous community of Warakurna, regarded by the Western Australian Police Force as a first step towards rectifying a troubled past between the police and remote Indigenous communities.

Debuting just under a week after the massive eruption of Black Lives Matters protests that enveloped every end of Australia’s coasts – the crucial ripples of the on-going worldwide fallout resulting from George Floyd’s tragic murder in the United States – Our Law crackles with regional specificity as it emphasises the importance for mutual respect and communication towards easing our social tensions.

All Together Now

Other figures fighting for local community progression can be found in Ros Horin’s stirring snapshot Rosemary’s Way, which follows Multicultural Liaison Officer Rosemary Kariuki, whose relentless work to draw the isolated women of Auburn’s migrant community out of their homes and into society demonstrates a much-needed open-armed empathy and genuine concern towards those who need it the most.

Horin allows this winning tribute to Kariuki’s wholesome dedication to be punctuated by stories by the various women she cares for, as they detail distressing accounts of abuse and estrangement, formulating a surprisingly unsensational profile that is mutually gentle in spirit and culturally frank.

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Best Australian Documentary Finalists
Women of Steel (2020) –  source: Sydney Film Festival

Robynne Murphy’s finely-drawn Women of Steel might like-wise be characterised as a rousing induction of solidarity, but this intriguing  report on the Jobs for Women campaign, a public movement formed during the 1980s to win the right for women to work at the Port Kembla steelworks in Wollongong, Australia, is pitched at more “David vs Goliath” levels of opposition.

Brimming with energy, this historical record is supercharged by being helmed by one of the group’s leaders, as Murphy graciously reminisces about how they took on the mining company BHP and won – expect a Kriv Stenders-directed feature adaptation in the future.

Tough Times Ahead

BHP remains the enemy (despite never being named) in Kathy Drayton’s The Weather Diaries, whose anxieties regarding climate change and the grief it causes holds lateral echoes to Ethan Hawkes’ forebodingly existential diary entries from Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This sedate and somber audiovisual essay turns rage into poetry, as it specifies Drayton’s internal anguish regarding her daughter’s future and the world she’ll be forced to age into.

She correlates her speculation against analogous clips from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated spectacles, whose work has always targeted our mistreatment of nature – It says a lot that the immediate future projected here looks bleak, whereas Damon Gameau’s 2040, released just last year, looked forward with such a bright and hopeful outlook. 

Perseverance against bleak prospects shapes the rest of the documentary program; Jakeb Anhvu’s A Hundred Years of Happiness charts the inception of a young Vietnamese woman’s unhappy marriage, while Nays Baghai’s Descent, Ili Baré’s The Leadership and Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House individually transport audiences to the world’s harshest climates in the pursuit of scientific and mental health breakthroughs.

Rounding out the lineup is Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess’ trailblazing account of the titular Morgana, which heralds an enlightening perspective on the housewife-turned-pornstar’s journey of sexual exploration and the harnessing the power of the female body. Transcending social transgressions, the female directing pair expertly mine Morgana Muses’ airing of vulnerabilities to bring forth the appeal and demand for such an ambitious career change, emerging with a casual formalistic drama that effectively negotiates the elusive threshold between exploitation and empowerment.

Do any of these documentaries sound appealing to you? Let us know in the comments!

The Sydney Film Festival is online from the 10th to 21st June 2020, details about ticket and film information can be found here: https://www.sff.org.au/

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