Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts

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.

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.

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 Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films and the 3 Screenability shorts.

The Dendy Awards for Australian Short Film Finalists:

Ayaan (Alies Sluiter)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Ayaan (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

An escaped asylum seeker (Babetida Sadjo) encounters an Aboriginal man (Trevor Jamieson) on a remote Australian beach. She must decide whether to trust him or  journey on alone.

Alies Sluiter’s minimalistic outback thriller never quite camouflages the predictability of its quiet climax, but the unspoken solidarity between its disenfranchised characters and a firm reliance on implicit images to reveal entire histories affirms Sluiter’s promise as a director to watch out for.

The Fall (Mert Berdilek)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
The Fall (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

A young Syrian mother (Taj Aldeeb), who recently arrived in Australia as a refugee, faces an unforeseen tragedy in this poignant exploration of the nature of grief.

The muted pleasures of Mert Berdilek’s The Fall most obviously shows the influence of Bergman, a two-hander chamber piece that contrives a Syrian refugee (Taj Aldeeb) against an imam (Majid Shokor) in a debate regarding the refugee’s recently deceased husband. Shrouded in storm-gray textures, its classical form gestures towards something far more modern within its thematic lining, which never reduces its complex situation to over-simplified platitudes.

GNT (Sara HirnerRosemary Vasquez-Brown)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
GNT (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

Glenn is a woman on an unwholesome mission, but just how far will she go to conquer the clique – and social media at large? 

Sara Hirner and Rosemary Vasquez-Brown undeniably manic GNT seems destined for Adult Swim audiences, matching it’s chaotic cartoonish visuals with an extravagant magnification of our current millennial discourse, explicitly in regards to our obsessive relationship with social media. Unapologetically blunt, GNT understands the subversive and generative potential of the medium of animation to smuggle in the most offensive illustrations to confront its audiences with uncomfortable truths.

Grevillea (Jordan Giusti)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Grevillea (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

An incarcerated Jewish teen encounters a mysterious tattooist with unclear intentions when he decides to get a tattoo, against the conventions of his religion.   

Realised with the bleak, Bresson-esque stylization of Justin Kurzel, Jordan Giusti’s Grevillea removes any trace of any sentimentality and superficiality to place its audience into quite the questioning position. Curiously undramatic in execution, this muted short mutually make the emotional use of our understandable anxiety of the prison system, as well as revoking our religious beliefs in the face of certain doom. It’s difficult to dismiss but shackled with a heavy-heartedness that seldom effectively hides the thinness of the core material.

Her Own Music (Olivia Aleksoski)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Her Own Music (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

On the cusp of graduation, Maddie’s  (Alexandra Morgan)  blooming relationship with another student forces a choice: suppress her newfound self or throw out her life to date?

Cramming an entire three-act feature narrative into a crowded, over-stuffed 20-minute package, Olivia Aleksoski’s suburban school-girl drama clearly has its eye on a future theatrical adaptation, stampeding through every traditional ‘forbidden love’ genre beats at maximum speed, which never finds the time to escape the galloping cliches which movies of this type are usually prey to.

I Want to Make a Film About Women (Karen Pearlman)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
I Want to Make a Film About Women (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

A queer love letter to Russian  revolutionary women artists of the 1920s,  speculating on what they said, did and might have created had it not been for Stalin’s suppression.

The crisp HD digital rendering of 1920’s Russia, coupled with the barrage of theatrical staging and assertive on-screen typography is a deliberately determined approach to presenting a hip, modernistic perspective on these early female filmmakers, but in doing so, never quite appropriately sells the realities of its grim scenario. Shining on a spotlight on these unheralded stories is undeniably important and I Want to Make a Film About Women provides the fascinating stepping stones into further digging into these repressed chapters of history.

Idol (Alex Wu)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Idol (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

A young Chinese celebrity, Wan Ran (Nan Chen), is called into an emergency meeting with his manager following a young fan’s suicide.

Remixing Eminem’s Stan for the K-Pop era, Alex Wu’s Idol bets big on its ambitious gambit; capturing the entire confrontation between the celebrity, Wan Ran (Nan Chen) and his off-screen agent (Jiapei Wu) in a single 19-minute one-shot that keeps the focus entirely on Ran’s steadily crumbling visage. While Nan Chen gives the grueling experience an anchoring presence, the delicately modulated melodrama of its polemical script slowly manifests itself into being far more engaging than its central visual gimmick.

Mukbang (Eliza Scanlen)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Mukbang (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

A high school outsider’s (Nadia Zwecker) obsession with internet culture mutates into a sexual awakening when she discovers the South Korean phenomenon ‘mukbang’.

Eliza Scanlen’s Mukbang is a curious Millenial study that communicates directly through emotions rather than intellect, indeed to literally explain the online phenomenon of Mukbang – live-streamed broadcasts of people binge-eating masses of junk food – would risk diminishing the inferred desires of its inquisitive lead (Nadia Zwecker). Scanlen’s socially-conscious burrowing into modern adolescent psychosis understands the power of cinema as a tool to mine into the nature of today’s teens – or how one may find themselves consuming several weeks’ worth of calories in mere minutes for a faceless, virtual crowd.

Obscura (Emily Jordan, Hannah Jordan)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Obscura (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

An imaginative stop-motion animation that looks inside our cameras at the creatures within, who are living lives defined by what they see through the lens.

A cute, Aardman-esque that asks the Pixar-type question of “What do you think really happens inside your cameras?” with an old-school, fairy-tale level of youthful whimsy.  Using impressive stop-motion animation, Emily and Hannah Jordan’s rhyme-rhythm narration and farcical creature work suggest a beloved children’s book brought to life. 

The Quiet (Radheya Jegatheva)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
The Quiet (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

Silence is the most beautiful thing that exists in the universe. When an astronaut ponders the quietude of space, he makes a startling self-realisation.

Adorned with an abundance of formal permutations, Radheya Jegatheva’s The Quiet is a meditative exercise that functions better as an animation showcase than an existential tour of one’s own fractured psyche. Open in expression, this revolving carousel of rumination uses the cosmos as its canvas, sketching an experimental depiction of loneliness that artfully deconstructs feelings into images, rather than mere words.

Screenability Shorts

Safety Net (Anthea Williams)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Safety Net (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

12-year-old Terry is in emergency care with guardians after his mother’s arrest. Cheeky and living with a disability, he outwits one guardian and connects with the other in a surprising way.

Modestly crowd-pleasing through its bittersweet structure, Anthea Williams’ Safety Net grounds itself inside a single motel room, composing a rather broad representation of two opposing ideas of child care – empathy vs discipline – but it never finds the proper balance between exhibiting each side pragmatically. There’s a gossamer level of sweetness that brings itself to light as the short concludes, but this succinct snapshot ends right where it should be beginning.

Groundhog Night (Genevieve Clay-Smith)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Groundhog Night (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

For carer Gary, moving on and keeping his family together isn’t always easy.  Tensions run high  when his late wife’s parents arrive unannounced after he brings  home  a date. 

A domestic farce that recalls comparable situations that any family has had to face with antagonistic in-laws, Genevieve Clay-Smith’s Groundhog Night never undercuts the realities of its disabled lead character (Emily Dash, who also wrote the script) for laughs, instead of finding comedy in the difficulties of middle-aged dating and all the personal baggage that it comes with. The relatable cringe-inducing interludes provide an effective counterweight to the central family’s dynamics, who each feel conceived more in the raw than the artificial.

Diving In (Adam Bowes, Nina Oyama)

Sydney Film Festival 2020 Virtual Edition: The Shorts
Diving In (2020)- source: Sydney Film Festival

Will romance blossom for Alex?  The competitive swimmer is madly in love with Jen, who works at the local pool. First, he needs to make a date, but his mischievous friends  aren’t helping.

Fast, funny, and perfectly emblematic of what every short film should try to be, Adam Bowes and Nina Oyama’s sufficiently sweet Diving In deftly weaves an adorable love story, a Chaplin-esque madcap chase sequence, and an expertly-lined up punchline all into one charming package. 

Do any of these shorts 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:

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