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FILM FESTIVALS OF THE WORLD #10: Sydney Film Festival

by Stephen Groenewegen

Here’s something you didn’t know: the Sydney Film Festival is one of the oldest film festivals on the planet. It racked up its half century in 2003 and only a handful of the biggies – like Cannes and Venice – have been around longer. It has certainly grown since that first fest back in 1954 – 10 films over 3 days in cramped University of Sydney lecture halls. It also faces more competition now than ever before.

Australia’s glitziest and most glamorous city also likes to think of itself as a cosmopolitan place and all year round, it seems, mini festivals grab highly celebrated works of non-English speaking countries like France, Spain, Germany and Italy. The pick of non-mainstream gay and lesbian fare screens at the Mardi Gras Film Festival every February. Tropfest is the shorts showcase that annually attracts Hollywood stars (from Russell Crowe to Salma Hayek) as judges and thousands upon thousands of spectators. Open the listings pages of any local film rag and you will see ads for dozens of festivals screening short films.

The Sydney Film Festival survives partly through the loyalty of its subscribers and as an annual institution. It falls squarely into the category of audience-driven film festival designed to give the crowds a more diverse selection of films than that found in the local multiplex or art house. The 51st edition is just around the corner, and here’s what you need to know before you go.


Where: Er, Sydney of course. In 2004, the Festival’s tentacles reach into two additional venues – the iconic Sydney Opera House and NSW Art Gallery – as well as the traditional State Theatre and Dendy Opera Quays, an art house on the harbour.

When: The Festival traditionally kicks off with a public holiday long weekend in the middle of winter. Still, we’re not talking Sundance here – June in Sydney means temps in the high teens and never a snowflake in sight. This year’s proceedings run 11-26 June.

How much: Single ticketing was introduced in 2000 and has taken off in a big way. A single ticket will cost you $A15, but the more you buy the cheaper it gets. A 10 or 20 Film flexi pass sets you back $120 or $200 respectively and is probably your best bet if you can’t set aside the time to subscribe. Subscription packages for one or both weeks can work out to a measly $3.50 per film. For full details, go to: Tickets to Opening and Closing Nights are only available separately.

Number of films: More than 230, including features, shorts, documentaries, retrospectives, silent classics, groovy late shows and experimental digital work for the black skivvy crowd.

What you’ll see: The Festival sources its features mostly from international festivals like Toronto, London, New York, Sundance and Berlin. The timing means it’s often too late to pick up much from Cannes, but there will usually be a couple of buzzed films from the Croisette. Opening Night is a world premiere antipodean offering, Closing Night frequently an upbeat or offbeat crowd-pleaser. The Festival is still your best bet to see most of these films on a big screen – only a minority go into wide release afterwards.

Competition: The Festival has held Short Film awards in conjunction for 35 years. This year’s slate includes high-profile prizewinners from Cannes and the Oscars so they’ve wisely moved the screenings from the first Friday to the last Saturday of the Festival. Cash prizes are awarded to the winners on closing night. At the same time, the Festival also announces the audience-voted favourites, a FIPRESCI prize for Best Documentary and a sponsored prize for the best European film.

Celebrity spotting: This isn’t Hollywood, so revise your expectations accordingly. The Festival likes to think of its Opening Night as an A list celebrity event, but that mostly seems to count for local politicians and TV stars these days. The Festival always attracts a strong selection of overseas guests, mostly directors, to attend forums, introduce screenings of their films and answer audience questions afterwards.

Transport: The State Theatre is in the middle of town, across the road from Pitt Street shopping mall, minutes from Town Hall train station and well serviced by buses. The other main venue, Dendy Opera Quays, is handy to trains (Circular Quay station), buses and even ferries.

Accommodation: Check online for the best cheap venues to stay in Sydney. If convenience overrides expense, you can always stay at the official hotel of the Festival, the 5 star Sofitel Wentworth.

Parties: Tickets to Opening Night film and party will set you back $120. This is a “red carpet” event so leave your jeans and favourite scruffy jumper at home. This year, the State Theatre also hosts the World Movies Festival Club, a noon-to-midnight downstairs bar serving tapas and hosting free forums, meet the filmmaker sessions, late night DJs and happy hours from 5-7 pm. The Dendy Opera Quays venue has a bar, and is handy to a range of waterside eateries.

Press facilities/access: Media accreditation will secure entry to designated areas of the State Theatre – only limited media seats are available at the other venues. A good selection of screening tapes is available for viewing on the premises. The Festival is offering a Media Resources room in the State this year, which promises to be a convenient addition for harried critics.

Best/worst venues: The State Theatre is a paragon of kitschy splendour – all red carpets, marble staircases and faux gold statuary. The old-fashioned opulence is charmingly tacky and the theatre can’t be beaten for atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s a venue for live performance, not film, and the seats are - frankly - uncomfortable. Your backside will be aching well before that Iranian masterpiece about doe-eyed street children enters its final tragic act. By contrast, Dendy Opera Quays is only a few years old. The screens are a good size, the staff courteous and the stadium seating comfortable. An additional screen for the Festival at this venue is an excellent innovation.

Traps for young players: The biggest difficulty is the distance between the main venues. Allow 25 minutes or so to get between the State and Dendy by a brisk walk or downtown bus. Some sessions sell out, although the most popular films are normally those that secure a general release within a few months of the Festival finishing. Arrive early at Dendy screenings to grab a spot in the queue. Films are spaced only 20 minutes apart so bring a thermos and sandwiches if you’re settling in for the day or night. Ushers will not admit latecomers until after the short (if there is one). Finally, it’s winter and you’re sitting in a draughty theatre surrounded by people who are getting no sunshine, reduced sleep and are not eating properly. You will catch a cold unless you take the necessary precautions (who says film critics don’t have your best interests at heart?).

Final grade: A- The Sydney Film Festival is now a venerable institution. Besides an inability to always secure must-see films, the biggest challenge it faces is a sense of smugness and complacency. The Festival must continue to innovate to remain fresh. You may not see the best films of the year here, but there is usually enough diversity and choice to keep even hardened filmgoers happy (or at least grumbling contentedly). What the Festival really needs is a state-of-the-art integrated arts complex for a venue. Where is Sydney’s equivalent to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Melbourne’s Federation Square?

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originally posted: 05/17/04 19:21:22
last updated: 06/10/04 07:18:31
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