Film Festival

15 Documentaries you cannot miss at the Sydney Film Festival 2017

We selected 15 documentaries worth watching at the Sydney Film Festival that will take place from June 7th – 18th, in Sydney.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail by Steve James – USA | 2016 – 88 min.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown is one of America’s smallest banking institutions. Shanghai-born Thomas Sung founded it in 1984 (inspired in part by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) to provide his community with loans, a service routinely denied by other banks. Now 80, Thomas runs the company with the help of his three hard-working daughters. In 2010, the bank noticed irregularities in its mortgage books, and reported the matter to authorities. A lengthy legal battle ensued, driven by the New York District Attorney Office, and an eye-opening story of discrimination unfolded inside and outside of the courtroom. As the film suggests, perhaps Abacus wasn’t ‘too big to fail’, but rather, ‘small enough to jail’.

June 11th Sunday – State Theatre – 9:30 am
June 14th Wednesday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 8:25 pm



Ama-San by Cláudia Varejao – Portugal, Switzerland, Japan | 2016 – 113 min.

For centuries, the ama (literally ‘women of the sea’) of the remote Shima Peninsula have been diving for seafood. Remarkably, the average age of the fisherwomen is 67. Varejão’s film captures three generations of divers as they head out to the Pacific, chatting like workers everywhere as they fold their traditional linen headdresses and adjust their goggles. As the women plunge beneath the ocean, silence surrounds them and time slows – a fitting analogy for this enduring but endangered tradition – while onshore they bathe and unwind before returning to household routines. This spellbinding film is awash in hypnotic visuals and reflects on past and future, while questioning common concepts of femininity.

June 10th Saturday – Event Cinemas George St 8 – 10:15 am
June 13th Tuesday – State Theatre – 10:00 am



An insignificant man by Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla – India | 2016 – 96 min.

Fed up with the blatant corruption he encountered daily, former bureaucrat Kejriwal took the extraordinary step of forming a new political movement, the Common Man’s Party (AAP) in 2012. In a country where two parties held sway, this radical upstart seemed unlikely to shake the status quo – but there are no guarantees in politics these days. The directors follow the AAP leader on his grass-roots campaign trail, filming rallies, party meetings and an eventual hunger strike. It’s a rollercoaster ride with rival politicians and media spinning the truth every which way. A fascinating document of India’s political climate, the film echoes themes seen elsewhere in the festival such as in The Giant is Falling (see page xx).

June 16th Friday – State Theatre – 9:30 am
June 18th Sunday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 11:50 am



Angry Inuk by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril – Canada | 2016 – 85 min.

Stories in the media of brutality and exploitation were at odds with Arnaquq-Baril’s childhood memories of seal hunting with her family on remote Baffin Island. Her people were accused of terrible things, which didn’t reflect her experience. Environmental groups used footage of baby seals being clubbed decades after this was banned, and falsely claimed that the seal population was endangered. Arnaquq-Baril believes the Inuit approach is ethical and sustainable, but when trying to discuss this with activists, no one returns her calls. This passionate documentary examines the challenges faced by the Inuit community – not least when wealthy nations make the rules that negatively impact their way of life.

June 17th Saturday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 3 – 12:35 pm
June 18th Sunday – Dendy Newtown – 4:15 pm



Austerlitz by Sergei Loznitsa – Germany | 2016 – 94 min.

A hot summer’s day and hordes of tourists flood through the entrance gates of Dachau and Sachsenhausen, past the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Sets You Free’) sign. Dressed in summer gear, they look around, smile for selfies, point, chat and yawn. We hear snippets of their conversations, and fragments of tour guide commentary. The tourists are not deliberately disrespectful, but T-shirt slogans such as ‘Cool Story Bro’ strike a jarring note. Sergei Loznitsa’s brilliant black-and-white documentary is thought-provoking, in the face of this apparent thoughtlessness. The Ukrainian director (Maidan, The Event) challenges us to consider how we should behave, and what we hope to gain by looking at the past.

June 11th Sunday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 11:30 am
June 18th Sunday – Event Cinemas George St 8 – 12:30 pm



Blue by Karina Holden – Australia | 2017 – 70 min.

As marine biologist and activist Lucas Handley explains, our oceans are in trouble and it’s time we stopped thinking of them as both a place of limitless resources and a dumping ground. His call for action is echoed by passionate advocates for marine preservation, such as shark activist Madison Stewart, FNQ ranger Philip Mango, seabird specialist Dr Jennifer Lavers, sustainability promoter Tim Silverwood, Greenpeace SE Asia’s Mark Dia and long-time campaigner Valerie Taylor. Filmed over two years in Indonesia, the Philippines, Hawaii and Australia, this cinematic, galvanizing documentary comes at a time when we are making critical decisions that will decide the legacy we leave for generations to come.

June 11th Sunday – State Theatre – 8:30 pm
June 12th Monday – The Ritz Cinema Randwick – 4:05 pm
June 13th Tuesday – Dendy Newton – 6:15 pm



Chasing Coral by Jeff Orlowski – USA | 2017 – 91 min.

Jeff Orlowski’s Oscar-nominated Chasing Ice recorded the melting of Arctic ice sheets using time-lapse photography. In Chasing Coral, he goes under the water’s surface, in an all-out attempt to shoot illusive yet pervasive coral bleaching. An ad man, a self-confessed coral nerd, technicians, and marine biologists join Orlowski in his dogged pursuit of the visual proof of global warming. The team heads to the Great Barrier Reef, which in many zones is a pale shadow of the colourful wonderland it once was. In the last three decades, 50-percent of the world’s corals have been lost. It’s not a gradual process, and in Orlowski’s vital film, it’s happening before our eyes, in our own backyard.

June 16th Friday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 6:45 pm
June 18th Sunday – Event Cinemas George St 4 – 4:25 pm



Dream Empire by David Borenstein – Denmark | 2016 – 74 min.

Chongqing’s property surge attracts 24-year-old Yana with promises of wealth and privilege. She opens an agency to provide Chinese real estate developers with ‘white monkeys’: foreigners who attend openings, dressed in costume, sometimes performing (badly). From the laughable ‘Britishville’ to the world’s largest aquarium complete with mermaids, it’s all intended to demonstrate progress and prosperity, but tellingly most of the developments are empty. Yana struggles to reconcile this ruthless absurdity with her rural roots. Borenstein (a rent-a-foreigner himself) calls his film an insider’s view and an outsider’s perspective on “the biggest building boom in human history”. Winner, top prize at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival.

June 10th Saturday – Dendy Newtown – 6:15 pm
June 16th Friday – Event Cinemas George St 8 – 8:30 pm



Elián by Ross McDonnell, Time Golden
USA, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland | 2017 – 108 min.

Elián was just five years old when a Florida fisherman found him floating in an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, the only survivor of a shipwreck. His mother (who drowned in the incident) didn’t tell her ex-husband that she planned to abscond to the USA in a homemade boat. Elián’s Miami-based relatives take him in, all the while providing the media unfettered access to their tiny charge. His father wants him back in Cuba; his cousins want him to stay in the land of opportunity. The debate escalates – priests, lawyers and politicians (in a crucial election year) from Gore to Castro, all get involved. The now-adult Elián comments, “what happened to me wasn’t a movie, it was a true story”, clearly demonstrating that truth is stranger than fiction.

Schedule (screens with Connection):
June 12th Monday – Event Cinemas George St 9 – 1:35 pm
June 18th Sunday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 4:05 pm



I am not your Negro by Raoul Peck – France, USA, Belgium, Switzerland | 2016 – 93 min.

People’s Choice Documentary Award-winner at Toronto, Oscar-nominated and a box office success in the US, I Am Not Your Negro takes as its starting point notes for a book Baldwin intended to write about the lives and assassinations of his friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. That unwritten book finds life in this remarkable film which melds Baldwin’s unpublished writing (powerfully narrated by Jackson), archival footage of his eloquent analysis of the times, and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests. Haitian Peck (Lumumba; Moloch Tropical, SFF 2010) is a stridently political filmmaker and here his profound and poetic cine-essay is, as The New York Times describes it, “life-altering”.

June 12th Monday – State Theatre – 6:25 pm
June 13th Tuesday – State Theatre – 12:10 pm
June 17th Saturday – The Ritz Cinema Randick – 6: 00 pm



Last men in Aleppo by Feras Fayyad – Syria, Denmark | 2016 – 104 min.

As the missiles fall across the Syrian warzone, the exhausted and poorly equipped White Helmets head out to search for victims and survivors. Syrian director Feras Fayyad collaborated with Danish filmmaker Steed Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre to record the daily activities of these reluctant heroes. A father is torn between fleeing with his children and staying to help his community. A colleague visits a family that he dug out of debris. Sirens interrupt a brief moment of joy in a kid’s playground. These are just a few of the moments that elevate this remarkable documentary beyond nightly news coverage. It illuminates the courage and sense of community that lies alongside the tragedy.

June 10th Saturday – State Theatre – 9:30 am
June 14th Wednesday – Event Cinemas George St 8 – 6:00 pm



Mifune: The last samurai by Steven Okazaki – Japan | 2016 – 80 min.

After falling into acting by accident, Mifune came to the attention of Kurosawa in the late 1940s, just as the filmmaker was finding his stride. “Mifune became Kurosawa’s wild artistic id,” Variety’s Owen Gleiberman said of Kurosawa’s trusted collaborator, “as surely as Robert De Niro was Martin Scorsese’s in the ’70s.” Scruffy, scowling and ferocious, Mifune’s performance in Rashomon (opening the festival’s Kurosawa retrospective) was seemingly at odds with his debonair and charming true self. Oscar-winning director Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting, SFF 1991) skilfully plays with this dichotomy, switching from clips of Mifune’s iconic roles to photos of the actor relaxing at home.

June 8th Thursday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 3 – 6:15 pm
June 13th Tuesday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2 – 8:15 pm



Motherland by Ramona S. Diaz – Philippines, USA | 2017 – 94 min.

Mothers, daughters – and the occasional father – cram the corridors of Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Hospital. The ward is frenetic: hundreds of beds are strewn with mums and their carefully labelled new-borns. Birth control is frowned upon in this underprivileged, predominantly Catholic community; even unmarried teens and 20-somethings with six kids are reluctant to use it. Resources are limited so, in lieu of incubators, the hospital has adopted Kangaroo Mother Care. Parents are obliged to snuggle their premature babies to their chest, 24 hours a day, until they reach an optimum weight. The camaraderie and openness of these resilient mothers makes Ramona S. Diaz’s film enormously engaging and gratifyingly uplifting.

June 15th Thursday – State Theatre – 10:00 am
June 17th Saturday – Event Cinemas George St 8 – 4:10 pm



Risk by Laura Poitras – Germany, USA | 2016 – 93 min.

“I can’t believe what he [Assange] allows me to film,” Poitras says at the beginning of her documentary. Risk premiered at Cannes last year, but Poitras has since updated her account of WikiLeaks’ activities to include the 2016 US presidential campaign. She records the outspoken Assange discussing Sweden’s extradition efforts with his QC, chatting to Lady Gaga and taking a call from his mum in Australia. Poitras’ access is unprecedented, but is Assange performing for her camera in the same way he plays to the international media? The director’s relationship with Assange seems beyond awkward and media reports have hinted at a falling out. This uneasiness, however, makes for undeniably intriguing viewing.

June 10th Saturday – Event Cinemas George St 4 – 11:30 am
June 15th Thursday – Dendy Newtown – 6:00 pm



The Farthest by Emer Reynolds – Ireland | 2017 – 121 min.

Irish filmmaker Emer Reynolds tracks the story of this visionary endeavour from its birth, past Jupiter to Mars and beyond, skilfully placing the mission within the context of its era. Interviews with experts including Carl Sagan illustrate the sheer magnitude of the project. It’s hard not to be enthused by these erudite experts – reminiscent of the Large Hadron Collider team featured in Particle Fever (SFF 2014). Just think, these probes have been travelling through space for four decades sending back reams of information, with less computer power than your average smartphone. An Audience Award winner in Dublin, The Farthest boasts impressive big-screen imagery and a sweeping score.

June 16th Friday – Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 3 – 8:30 pm
June 18th Sunday – State Theatre – 9:30 am



You may also find interesting to know which are the:
15 Short Films you cannot miss at the Sydney Film Festival
20 Films you cannot miss at the Sydney Film Festival (soon)


To know more about this festival please go to the Festival Profile or to the Official Website.

Categories: Film Festival

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