This article was originally published 19 January 2021, and last updated 28 May 2021.
The Australian feature films of 2021 will launch into an unknown sea. Some have been delayed by the pandemic, some have not had their chance in the festival spotlight, and others may spin sideways into streaming.
The first three months of the year are fairly well sketched out. The features are being promoted already, while some excellent documentaries are gathering steam. I have included some small releases which tend towards cinema on demand; if you like them, then move quickly.
Robert Connolly’s small town mystery thriller The Dry has already claimed an impressive audience from a genre that usually does badly in the domestic stakes and we can only hope that the best will do even better as a home release.
Penguin Bloom: January 21
Penguin Bloom (w – Harry Cripps, Shaun Grant; d – Glendyn Ivin, p – Emma Cooper, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jodi Materson, Naomi Watts) opens here in the lead up to Australia Day, primed to feed our passion for feelgood pictures about animals which steer clear of sentimentality.
Synopsis: Penguin Bloom tells the true story of Sam Bloom, a young mother whose world is turned upside down after a near-fatal accident leaves her unable to walk. Sam’s husband, her three young boys and her mother are struggling to adjust to their new situation when an unlikely ally enters their world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin.
In Australia, the publicists have done well to raise good mainstream publicity where it counts, and some excellent colour attention about magpies and Naomi Watts. But the responses to the Toronto launch varied from meh to magical, as we explored at the time, so audiences may be divided. However, producers have the important financial security and raw attention from a netflix launch in North America, the UK, France and some Asian countries, just a week after the Australian showcase. .
High Ground – 28 January
Just as the audience has stopped dreaming of a protective magpie on the bedhead, they could risk the neo-Western harshness of High Ground (w – Chris Anastassiades d – Stephen Johnston, p – Wityana Marika, Stephen Johnson, Maggie Miles, David Jowsey, Greer Simpkin, c Bunya Productions), which will be released on January 28 by Madman.
Synopsis: 1919. WW1 sniper Travis, now a policeman in the vast and remote landscape of Northern Australia, loses control of an operation resulting in the massacre of an Indigenous tribe. With his superior officers intent on burying the truth Travis leaves disgusted before being forced back twelve years later in the hunt for outlaw Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior attacking new-settlers. Recruiting Gutjuk as his Tracker, Travis realises this young mission-raised Indigenous man is the only known massacre-survivor. When the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is he who becomes the hunted…
First revealed in the Berlin Film Festival last year, it unfurled locally at the Brisbane International Film Festival, where our critic Sarah Ward was extremely impressed. The story is part of the conversation about White violence to Indigenous people which is also carried by The Tracker and Sweet Country.
Occupation: Rainfall: January 28.
Luke Sparke started in the costume and wardrobe department, became a low budget indie writer-director with Red Billabong and then invented the battle-against-aliens franchise Occupation, followed by Occupation Rainfall, which restarts the saga with a much more accomplished and better funded version.
Synopsis: Two years into an intergalactic invasion of Earth where survivors in Sydney are fighting back in a desperate ground war. As casualties mount by the day, the resistance and their unexpected allies uncover a plot that could see the war come to a decisive end. With the alien invaders hell-bent on making Earth their new home, the race is on to save mankind.
Wild Things: 4 February
Sally Ingleton is an adroit independent producer who has done very well with conventional funding sources. She has returned to her true outsider roots with this inspiring cinema documentary about people who put themselves on the line for the causes the rest of us care about from the comfort of our sofas.
Synopsis: A film that honours the everyday people who are stepping up to defend their community, their land, and the planet, Wild Things by Sally Ingleton spends a year following a group of Australian environmental activists on the frontline.
The Witch of Kings Cross: 11 February
This film is another documentary labour of love, written and directed by Sonia Bible and produced by her and Peter Butt.
Synopsis: In 1950s Sydney, bohemian artist Rosaleen Norton hits the headlines with allegations of satanic rituals, obscene art and sex orgies. She worships the God Pan, and practices trances and sex magic, inspired by the work of Aleister Crowley. Eventually the relentless scandals lead to the downfall of her high society lover, Sir Eugene Goossens. Told ‘in her own words’, the film weaves stylized drama and erotic dancers with never-before-seen artworks, diaries and scrapbooks. The Witch of Kings Cross is the fascinating portrait of a fearless woman outlaw railing against fearful conservative forces and an insight into the work of an uncelebrated genius.
This film fascinated Rochelle Siemienowicz who interviewed Bible in October last year, as it received festival attention. Non-linear, with an experimental edge, but very accessible, it mashes issues in feminism, the myth of witchery, a great character and a crazed moral panic which gripped polite circles in Sydney society and destroyed leading conductor Eugene Goossens. The story even involves a thieving, perfidious reptile of the press.
Unsound: 11 February
Launched here at Cinefest Oz, Unsound (w – Ally Burnham, d – Ian Watson, p – Tsu Shan Chambers) has done well at festivals, including the The Hamburg International Queer Film Festival and the The 32nd Vienna International Children’s Film Festival.
Synopsis: When gigging guitarist, Noah, finds himself disillusioned and transient, he quits the band of his 90’s pop icon mentor, and returns to his mother’s home in Sydney, Australia, seeking connection and rejuvenation. Clashing with his mother over old wounds, Noah seeks solace elsewhere, and soon finds himself swept up in the vibrant, passionate life and of a young, trans-man, Finn, who is a proud, Auslan-only speaker who works and runs a local centre and nightclub for his deaf community. Together, the pair traverse new ground, sharing their languages – Noah’s music and Finn’s signs – with one another.
Long Story Short: 11 February
A traffic jam of Australian indies on the same day may not be fantastic. This film is another in the set started by The Little Death, in which writer/director (and actor) Josh Lawson began an association with Jamie Hilton. Michael Pontin and Isable Stanfield are also producing.
Synopsis: When time-poor Teddy wakes up the morning after his wedding to discover that every few minutes he’s jumping forward to the next year of his life, he must use every precious moment wisely to keep from losing the love of his life, and to learn to love the life he’s losing.
This is distributed by Studio Canal so it has mainstream muscle, though not from the likes of Roadshow.
FIRESTARTER: 18 FEBRUARY
This film was knock-your-socks-off popular on the Australian festival circuit in 2020 and we really hope it finds a wider audience. It premiered at the Brisbane International Film Festival late in 2020, ran at the summer season of the Sydney Film Festival, and was booked by the ABC to celebrate NAIDOC Week 2021.
Firestarter, (d- Wayne Blair, Neil Minchin, p – Ivan O’Mahony) draws on the creative story of the Bangarra Dance Company, surely a modern cultural icon.
Synopsis: Through the eyes of the Page brothers and company alumni, Firestarter explores the loss and reclaiming of culture, the burden of intergenerational trauma and crucially, the extraordinary power of art as a messenger for social change and healing.
Girls Cant Surf: 11 March
This film (w- Juile-Anne De Ruvo and Christopher Nelius, d – Nellus, p – Nelius and Michaela Perske) has already run at the Sydney Film Festival summer season, and inspired some passion from Madman.
Synopsis: It’s the 1980s and the world of professional surfing is a circus of fluoro colours, peroxide hair and radical male egos. Girls Can’t Surf follows the journey of a band of renegade surfers who took on the male-dominated professional surfing world to achieve equality and change the sport forever. Featuring surfing greats Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Andersen, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and more, GIRLS CAN’T SURF is a wild ride of clashing personalities, sexism, adventure and heartbreak, with each woman fighting against the odds to make their dreams of competing a reality.
Phil Leggett: The Voice of Cycling: 13 March
Again, treated with affection by Madman, this documentary (d – Eleanore Sharpe, p – Nicholas Bird) is more a character study than a simple romp through the mobile coliseum of professional cycling.
Synopsis: A former amateur racer turned professional commentator, Phil Liggett has covered forty-seven Tours de France and fifteen Olympic Games. He made Australians stay up all night glued to the television. He has seen the giants of cycling come and go and he has outlasted them all. He has called every triumph, tragedy and scandal in the sport for half a century. Astonishingly poetic and whimsical, Phil’s flights of rhetorical brilliance on the microphone are the stuff of legend and are globally known as “Liggettisms”. Has anyone ever described the pain of the uphill climb, or the chaos of the sprint to the line with such grace or style?
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway: 18 March
Animal Logic’s pride and joy, the second rabbit film (w – Will Gluck, Patrick Burleigh; d – Will Gluck; p – Will Gluck and Zareh Nalbandian) inherits the mantle of a film which is alleged to have cost $65m and took $450m around the world.
Synopsis: Thomas and Bea are now married and living with Peter and his rabbit family. Bored of life in the garden, Peter goes to the big city, where he meets shady characters and ends up creating chaos for the whole family.
Directed and written by Michael Bentham, produced by Donna Lyon, both of whom have risen to this feature occasion after a solid track record in other roles.
Synopsis: When a 4-year-old girl makes an allegation against the son of a politician, an attempt by the children’s parents to resolve the situation soon degenerates into a vicious confrontation.
My name is gulpiliL: May 27
Synopsis: Early in 2017, legendary Australian actor David Gulpilil was diagnosed with lung cancer. His doctors estimated six months for him but David, being David, was always likely to defy the odds. And he continues to do so with probably his last great work, My Name is Gulpilil. For the first time, it’s all Gulpilil, his story, in his words. He takes us boldly on the journey that is his most extraordinary, culture-clashing life.
THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON: October 14
This story has been part of senior Indigenous creator Leah Purcell’s life since she was a child. She has already turned the Henry Lawson short story into an acclaimed play at the Belvoir St Theatre in 2016.
Synopsis: In the Snowy Mountains, Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned. A searing reimagining of Leah Purcell’s play and Henry Lawson’s classic short story.
Written and directed by Purcell, it is part of the Bunya stable with Oombarra Productions. Producers are Greer Simpkin, Bain Stewart, David Jowsey, Angela Littlejohn and Leah Purcell producing.
WHEN POMEGRANATES HOWL (Release TBC)
This was a standout film at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2020, made by Iranian poet Granaz Moussavi, who also went back to her birth country to make the clandestine My Tehran For Sale., backed by South Australian producers and shot clandestinely.
Synopsis: 9-year-old Hewad is an irrepressible, street-smart kid who is energetically working every angle, hustling everything from pomegranate juice to amulets to protection from the evil eye. His real ambition is to be a movie star, and this comes a step closer when he meets an Australian photographer. But in a city where every family has a member who has been “martyred,” the streets are as perilous as they are vivid.
It is produced by Baheer Wardak, Christine Williams and Marzieh Vafamehr.
WASH MY SOUL IN THE RIVER’S FLOW (RELEASE TBC)
Directed by Philippa Bateman, a veteran development executive, produced by Kate Hodges.
Synopsis: A film that celebrates the love, lives and creative collaboration of artists Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter as they prepare and perform at the premiere of Kura Tungar—Songs from the River, the result of a two-year collaboration with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra. Using footage shot in 2004 of interviews, rehearsals and the opening night, the film is a portrait of artists at the peak of their powers and a cinematic musical journey into the landscape of soul.
YER OLD FAITHER (Release TBC)
Heather Kroll is an Adelaide documentary filmmaker who once ran the Australian International Documentary Conference and then went to the UK to take over the Sheffield Documentary Festival. For all those years, she kept talking about a personal film about her father. It took the audience prize at the last Adelaide Film Festival.
Synopsis: Set in the industrial town of Whyalla, this is an intimate portrait of John Croall, a Glaswegian immigrant to Australia, and the father of long-time Adelaide Fringe director, Heather Croall. John Croall delivered three generations of babies and planted thousands of trees in the town. He was also a great letter writer, and this very personal documentary uses these letters as its point of departure. Heather Croall films with her father as a way of coping with his approaching death and reflecting on the close, and often very funny, relationship between a father and a daughter.
Heather Kroll has a fine sense of humour herself.
MY FIRST SUMMER (RELEASE TBC)
The film ran at the Adelaide Film Festival, where it found some fans in a quiet way. It is the first feature for Katie Found, supported by producer Jonathan auf der Heide and Alisha Hnatjuk.
Synopsis: 16-year-old Claudia has grown up in isolation from the outside world. Stranded on a remote property after her mother’s death, she is shocked when Grace, a spirited local teen, appears in the garden like a mirage, a breath of fresh, sugary air. The pair find in each other the support, love and intimacy they need, and teach each other the restorative power of human connection. But their idyllic peace is a fragile one as the adult world closes in and threatens their secret summer love.
DAMAGE (RELEASE TBC)
Also a first feature, by Madeleine Blackwell after a long career as a television actress. Produced by Sharon Cleary, Peter Thurmer and Blackwell herself.
Synopsis: This intimate two-hander pairs a couple who, at first glance, appear to be opposites in every way. Old Australia meets new Australia. Ali is not a citizen, he drives a taxi on another man’s license and relies on the GPS to negotiate a city he doesn’t know. Esther is an old woman gets into his taxi and forgets where she is going. She can’t remember, and he can’t forget the tragedies of his native land that have brought him here.
Lone Wolf (Release TBC)
Synopsis: Contemporary Melbourne. Via various modes of surveillance we observe a young woman, Winnie, and her disabled brother, Stevie, caught-up in a web of intrigue involving a bomb plot, inept anarchists, ambitious police and a corrupt politician. The duplicity of Winnie’s partner, Conrad Verloc -political activist and police informant –propels these siblings down a treacherous path, their only succour coming in the aftermath through the actions of police officer Kylie Heat.
6 Festivals (Release TBC)
Synopsis: Maxie, Summer and James are three mid-teen best friends whose friendship has been brought up short by the diagnosis James has brain cancer. We meet them at a raving music festival in the immediate aftermath of this deadly bombshell to find out this is the first of many festivals they plan to escape to – to deny or keep at bay the reality they must ultimately face.