Robust, Relevant and Diverse: Documentaries at Sydney Film Festival

The ten Australian films vying for the $10,000 Documentary Prize are a quietly effective bunch, revealing much about the evolution of the sector.

For all the talk of the current COVID reality killing the film industry, documentaries and non-fiction programs have not-so-surprisingly been winners of the situation facing film distributions and exhibition.

The rousing global success of streaming documentary series in particular these past three months show there’s a big market out there for watching factual stories from home, while participating in wider online conversations about them. From Tiger King and The Last Dance to light-hearted reality TV time-sucks like Love is Blind, the shared joy and debate across social media has made for a curious online experiment for producers.

Feature documentaries, too, have been uniquely well-suited to forging ahead despite the crisis. The loss of minimal box office takes proving negligible to some producers and distributors who have already been pivoting towards video on demand (VOD) and streaming-only releases for years now. It makes sense then that numerous festivals, too, like Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest and AFI DOCS are sending swathes of programming online and filmmakers like Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) and Oscar-winner Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War) are releasing their documentary works for free on Vimeo.

Like documentaries more broadly, film festivals are in a unique position to take advantage of the world’s current indoor lifestyle. And for Sydney Film Festival in particular, the likely loss of the George Street Event Cinemas is bound to cause scheduling headaches for the festival’s team moving forward that could potentially be solved by virtual exhibition. While nothing can replace the vibe and excitement of a real life premiere with a live audience, there are at least some consolations.

The (virtual) return of the Sydney Film Festival

One of Sydney Film Festival’s (SFF) most reliable strands is the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Australian Documentary. Curated by the festival’s documentary programmer Jenny Neighbour, this annual ten-film program screens local productions and offers a $10,000 cash prize. Recent winners include Erica Glynn’s She Who Must Be Obeyed Loved (2019), Ben Lawrence’s Ghosthunter (2018) and Sascha Ettinger-Epstein’s The Pink House (2017), which have all gone on to some form of local and international exposure. And when screened at the festival’s home, the State Theatre, these film screenings can often feel as grand as any big star-studded premiere.

They are broadly less concerned with cinematic polish as they are entering extremely specific universes.

It’s perhaps fortuitous, however, that SFF’s 2020 documentary competition line-up are now all to be screened virtually as they are for the most part much smaller films. Quieter is perhaps the better word for it, although half of them are indeed an hour or less in runtime. They are broadly less concerned with cinematic polish as they are entering extremely specific universes. Impressively, almost all of them being female-centric and with the line-up surpassing directorial gender parity (2020 was aiming be SFF’s first year with a 50/50 slate of male and female directors).

These ten films are something of a mixed bag and yet as a group they allow for an interesting glimpse into the independent documentary scene of Australia. There is an NITV documentary about police enforcement in WA (Our Law); an experimental meditation on the farming rituals of Cambodian migrants (The Plastic House); spiritual awakenings in arctic waters (Descent); and feminist history lessons (Women of Steel).

Read more: Women on Top: Adrian Martin’s Sydney Film Festival Highlights

Together they provide not just an entry into many different worlds in Australia and abroad and through a variety of lenses, but they also highlight the many ways non-fiction stories can be told. Smartly, the festival has made it possible to rent each film separately for $14 or as a bundle for $99, with ticket-buyers receiving bonus filmmaker introductions, Q&A sessions and panels filmed exclusively for SFF’s virtual viewers for added festival allure.

To Vietnam, Iceland and back to Sydney again

The most rewarding of this eclectic batch is Rosemary’s Way. Director Ros Horin delightfully dives into Western Sydney where spirited streetwise mother figure Rosemary Kiriuki works tirelessly to bring the migrant women of Auburn together and out of their homes. She teaches these women from Africa, Asia and South America how to recognise the signs of domestic violence, while also involving them in cultural exchange programs where their vibrant music and colourful daywear take country NSW by storm. It’s pure feel-good that more than nods to the way assimilation is weaponised against communities that are already struggling.

Migrant themes are also explored in Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House, easily the most avant-garde and visually rich of the collection. A South Australian filmmaker of Cambodian descent, Chhorn has made a poetic examination of migrant strength and the struggle of loss against the backdrop of a greenhouse ravaged by the seasons. As haunting as it is composed, this 45-minute film may feel more at home in a gallery, but that is probably why it is the most likely to find success at international festivals beyond SFF—its meticulous craft has a strong alliance with contemporary trends in documentary filmmaking typified by the works of RaMell Ross (Oscar-nominee Hale County This Morning, This Evening) and Khalik Allah (Black Mother). It’s one of the few films that is not a SFF World Premiere, having already screened at Visions du Réel in France.

More commercial is Tom Murray’s The Skin of Others, a biographic exploration of a lesser-known Australian war hero, Douglas Grant. An Indigenous man forced into a childhood adoption, Grant later became a soldier in WWII and his story is told through a variety of media including photographs, radio recordings, illustrations, paintings and live action recreations starring Balang Tom E. Lewis (in his final role). It tackles potent themes but with a spirit that should make it a popular choice for viewers at home.

There are a few titles that should parlay their World Premieres at Sydney into wider exposure. Cornel Ozies’ Our Law is a production of NITV, and at only 27 minutes, this short film about Western Australia’s first police station run by an all Aboriginal staff will only rise in relevance as themes of Aboriginal populations and their treatment by police gain attention in mainstream media. Likewise, the topical themes of female union workers fighting for equality in Wollongong’s steel industry ought to ensure Robynne Murphy’s Women of Steel becomes an educational resource on television. It’s Ili Baré’s The Leadership that stands the biggest chance of expanding further into theatres, virtual or otherwise. This is thanks to its narrative about an expedition of women in science aboard an Antarctic cruise that divides itself between inspirational empowerment and splintered in-fighting. Baré has captured something unexpected and compelling about contemporary gender politics.

The topical themes of female union workers fighting for equality in Wollongong’s steel industry ought to ensure Robynne Murphy’s Women of Steel becomes an educational resource on television.

Visual diaries are popular unobtrusive forms for filmmakers to use to get into the head of their subjects. Jakeb Anhvu’s A Hundred Days of Happiness ventures to rural Vietnam as 21-year-old Tran learns to cook sweet and sour eel soup and study South Korean in advance of her arranged marriage to an older man. Then there are The Weather Diaries in which director Kathy Drayton observes her teenage daughter’s indie music dream unfolding against climate and nature atrocities. Likewise, the interior life of sexual assault survivor Kiki Bosch is clearly contextualised in Nays Baghai’s Descent, which couples the raw internal monologues of its young female subject with some brilliant underwater photography as Kiki self-therapises by arctic free-diving (sea diving without a wetsuit or oxygen tank) to numb memories and inspire others.

Read more: Death, rebirth and the feminist porn star: an interview with Isabel Peppard

Finally, Morgana impresses thanks to its frank portrait of later-in-life sexual discovery and its unique brand of reflection and empowerment. Having previously screened at Melbourne International Film Festival, directors Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess explore the motivations behind a suburban housewife’s transition into the pornography business as an actor and director, winning plaudits in Berlin yet struggling with financial problems, mental health issues and family ostracism.  


An online future?

The ten films vying for the prize this year may not be the sort of glossy, big-name homegrown documentaries that would normally receive traditional theatrical releases like Mystify: Michael Hutchence, 2040 or even In My Blood It Runs. But that is all the more reason for why a festival like Sydney should program them. Most of these titles are clearly working on limited budgets with major Australian funding bodies absent from many of their credits. Women of Steel, for instance, was made almost exclusively through union and workers committees alongside Women Make Movies initiative. The Weather Diaries was produced as a component of a doctorate. Notable producers like Pat Fiske (Rocking the Foundations) and Tom Zubrycki (Molly & Mobarak) instead are fostering new talent and that the field is so diverse in story and new talent is worth championing.

Depending on the success of this year’s run of Sydney and Melbourne film festivals among others, it’s easy to imagine more regular online content exhibition. It could open their programming up to a new audience, those who wouldn’t normally attend a screening at 3.15pm on a Wednesday afternoon or a late-night weekend session. No matter how much we may enjoy sitting in theatres watching films together, this year’s experiment for documentaries could prove the way of the future.

The Documentary Australia Foundation Prize

This prize is supported by Documentary Australia Foundation with a $10,000 cash partnership acknowledging excellence in documentary production. Up to 10 films of any length are selected  and the jury will award the cash prize at SFF’s Virtual Awards Ceremony on Thursday 18 June. Winners are Academy Award eligible.

In summary, the finalists this year are:

  • A Hundred Years of Happiness, directed by Jakeb Anhvu, produced by C. Slater, Jakeb Anhvu, Kim Nguyen
  • Descent, directed by Nays Baghai, produced by P. Eero, Nays Baghai
  • Morgana, directed by Isabel Peppard & Josie Hess, produced by Isabel Peppard, Josie Hess and Gerald Thompson
  • The Leadership, directed by Ile Baré, produced by Greer Simpkin
  • Our Law, directed by Cornel Ozies, produced by Taryne Laffar, Sam Bodhi
  • The Plastic House, directed by Allison Chhorn, produced by Allison Chhorn and Chris Luscri
  • Rosemary’s Way, directed by Ros Horin, produced by Pat Fiske
  • The Skin of Others, directed and produced by Tom Murray
  • The Weather Diaries, directed by Kathy Drayton, produced by Tom Zubrycki
  • Women of Steele, directed and produced by Robynne Murphy

The Documentary Australia Foundation finalist films can be found here.

The Sydney Film Festival runs 10 – 21 June 2020. Individual tickets and program passes are available online.


Glenn Dunks
About the Author
Glenn Dunks is a film critic and arts journalist who has also worked across marketing for internationally-renowned events including the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the Sydney Film Festival. His work has appeared across digital, radio and print in Metro, the Big Issue, Vanity Fair, Junkee, SBS and more, and he is the documentary critic for The Film Experience. His writing has won two Australian Film Critics Association awards and in 2017 he authored Cannes Film Festival: 70 Years for Wilkinson Publishing.