Sydney Film Festival announces 12 documentary finalists for 2021

The finalists competing for the $10,000 Documentary Australia Foundation Award have a strong sense of social purpose.
Strong Female Lead

The 68th Sydney Film Festival (SFF) has announced 12 new Australian documentaries selected to contest the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary.

They are, as a whole, a political bunch, reflecting passions around social justice, institutions that aren’t serving Australia as they should, and heroes working despite those limitations. There are also intimate portraits of musicians, filmmakers and artists that demonstrate an international perspective. The strong support of SBS is key in a number of the films, and established documentary producers continue to nurture newer talents. Some previous SFF winners are here, suggesting they’re persisting beyond early career success.

Read: Bowraville Murders: The Gift of Tears

Like the rest of Australia, SFF is holding its breath for the latest lockdown updates and hopefully has a strong contingency plan. But at the time of writing, the organisation is proceeding as if the latest dates will hold for a physical film festival from 3-14 November 2021. (Usually held in June, this year’s festival was pushed back to August, and then November.)

The documentary finalist films will be screened in SFF’s November program with the winning film presented a $10,000 cash prize at the festival’s closing night on Sunday14 November.

The 2021 Documentary Finalists are:

  • The Bowraville Murders, directed by Allan Clarke, produced by Stefan Moore & Dan Goldberg.
  • Incarceration Nation, directed by Dean Gibson, produced by Helen Gibson.
  • Strong Female Lead, directed by Tosca Looby, produced by Karina Holden.
  • The Department, directed by Sascha Ettinger Epstein, produced by Ian Darling & Mary MacraeIan.
  • Under the Volcano, directed by Gracie Otto, produced by Cody Greenwood.
  • The Kids, directed by Eddie Martin, produced by Shannon Swan.
  • I’m Wanita, directed by Matthew Walker, produced by Clare Lewis, Tait Brady & Carolina Sorensen.
  • When the Cameras Stopped Rolling, directed by Jane Castle, produced by Pat Fiske.
  • A Fire Inside, directed by Justin Krook and Luke Mazzaferro, produced by Camilla Mazzaferro, Michael Hilliard, Casey Ventura.
  • Ithaka, directed by Ben Lawrence, produced by Gabriel Shipton, Adrian Devant.
  • Television Event, directed by Jeff Daniels, produced by Jeff Daniels, Amanda Spain.
  • Unseen Skies, directed by Yaara Bou Melhem, produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.

Most years there are up to ten finalists, but 2021 marks the twelfth year of the competition, and fittingly this year there are 12. This is the eighth year the prize has been supported by the not-for-profit Documentary Australia Foundation.

In previous years, all the films selected for the Documentary Australia Foundation competition enjoyed their premiere screening at the annual June Sydney Film Festival. With the change of festival dates, a number of the films in this year’s competition will have already been broadcast by November.

These include SBS’s Australia Uncovered projects Strong Female LeadThe Bowraville MurdersThe Department and Incarceration Nation; and Gracie Otto’s Under the Volcano which is in digital release. A Fire Inside, from directors Justin Krook and Luke Mazzaferro remains a SFF world premiere.

As Sydney Film Festival’s head of programs and documentary programmer Jenny Neighbour told IF, ‘We made a call this year that it didn’t matter if they were going to be broadcast or not. We just wanted to celebrate these ace filmmakers.’

In the announcement, Documentary Australia Foundation CEO Dr Mitzi Goldman said, ‘It is not only more important than ever to screen, view and award excellence in the documentary genre in these strange times, it is a joy and an honour to be able to share these powerful films and to celebrate their excellence.’

‘The award that Documentary Australia Foundation gives to the winner in this competition is only a small measure of our appreciation of the commitment, the artistry, the tenacity and resilience of Australian documentary filmmakers.’

Goldman spoke for the struggling but passionate Australian documentary sector when she said: ‘It’s not easy to finance these films, they often take many years to make, they confront traumatic experiences and carry them in profound and poetic narratives to audiences far and wide. I’m proud to have spent my working life in the documentary sector and I thank you all for the dedication and love that you have given to your subjects and your art,’ she said.

Jenny Neighbour said, ‘From exposing racism in Australia’s criminal justice system to an evocative reflection on the misogyny endured by our first female Prime Minister, this year’s documentaries will resonate with audiences long after the final credits stop rolling.’


The Bowraville Murders

Directed by award-winning Muruwari journalist and filmmaker, Allan Clarke, whose three-part TV series, Cold Justice won a Kennedy Award and United Nations Media Award. An investigation into one of Australia’s worst unresolved murder cases, involving three Aboriginal children (Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup, and Clinton SpeedyDurouz) all murdered within five months of each other, and whose remains were found on the same dirt track in Bowraville, a small town in Mid North Coast NSW in 1990-91.

Incarceration Nation

Directed by Dean Gibson (Wik vs Queensland—SFF2018), and produced by Helen Morrison (Wik vs Queensland). Produced for NITV, a striking documentary revealing the systemic injustice and oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian justice system.

Strong Female Lead

Directed by Tosca Looby (The Magical Land of Oz, See What You Made Me Do), and produced by AACTA award-winner, Karina Holden (Blue— SFF2017). Produced for SBS, Strong Female Lead is a harrowing examination of sexism in Australian politics, told through the lens of Julia Gillard’s experience as the first and only female Prime Minister of Australia in 2010. Made up entirely of archival footage, the film showcases the sexist and violent attacks she received during her three years in office by media commentators, the Australian public, and within Parliament itself.

The Department

Directed by documentary filmmaker Sascha Ettinger Epstein (The Pink House—SFF 2017) and produced by Ian Darling and Mary Macrae (The Final Quarter—SFF 2019). The Department is a feature doc that takes us inside the never-before-seen child protection system at work in NSW. Filmed in an observational style follows caseworkers as they navigate the complexities of keeping at risk children safe from domestic violence, addiction, poverty, mental health issues and intergenerational trauma.

Read: Vox Dox, lockdown and an interview with Ian Darling

Under the Volcano

Directed by Australian filmmaker Gracie Otto (Three Blind Mice – SFF 2008) and produced by Cody Greenwood. Premiered at South by South West Film Festival in March 2021, Under the Volcano charts the rise and fall of AIR Studios Montserrat, a state-of-the-art recording studio tucked away in the Caribbean, under the shadow of an active volcano. The film tells the story of the world’s most iconic recording artists, including The Police, Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and more. Built by Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin, the studio attracted the biggest names in music and birthed mega-hits that defined the sound of the 1980s. The studio was destroyed when the island was hit by a series of devastating natural disasters in 1989 – effectively marking the end of an iconic era of music.

The Kids

Directed by Eddie Martin (All This Mayhem – SFF2014), and produced by Shannon Swan. Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021, this is a documentary about the 1995 cult classic film Kids by Larry Clark (Smell of Us) which explored a day in the life of teenagers in New York City. Martin follows the lives of the actors from the original movie after their overnight fame, as some discovered new lives and careers, while others suffered fatal consequences, unable to handle the spotlight. Includes interviews and archival footage from the cast members who survived their fame.

I’m Wanita

Directed by Matthew Walker, who made a documentary short on Wanita initially in 2015, and produced by a music filmmaking team of Clare Lewis (My Best Friend… Mick Jagger), Tait Brady (Brothers Nest— SFF2018, Suzi Q – a doco on Suzi Quatro), and Carolina Sorensen (Backburning – a doco on Midnight Oil). Filmed over a five-year period, this tells the story of renegade country music singer, Wanita – the self-crowned ‘Queen of Australian Honky-Tonk’ – and her odyssey to live out her childhood dream of becoming a Country and Western star. Based in Tamworth, NSW, Wanita is a larger-than-life character who is rough-talking, hard-drinking, determined to be a star, and who married someone to give him a visa before falling for his father. When she gets some money, she flies to Nashville to record an album with music friends, Gleny Rae and Archer – but her demons threaten to ruin everything.

When the Cameras Stopped Rolling

Directed by Sydney-based cinematographer, Jane Castle (Fistful of Lies) and produced by Pat Fiske (Rosemary’s Way—SFF2020). Castle tells the story of her trailblazing mother – pioneer Australian filmmaker, Lilias Fraser – her legacy, their challenging relationship, and shared family trauma. Fraser overcame huge systemic and personal obstacles to make over forty films (The Beach, This is Their Land). Her mother went through a destructive marriage, alcoholism, and then dealing with single parenthood. The film also explores her Alzheimer’s disease. A generation of female filmmakers in the 1970s looked up to Fraser as a feminist role model in the industry, all because of her determination and filmography. Castle followed in the footsteps of her mother, travelling the globe shooting for music icons, including Prince, U2, INXS, Midnight Oil, and Mary J. Blige.

A Fire Inside

Directed by Grammy-nominated filmmaker Justin Krook (The Human Experiment) and Luke Mazzaferro (Machine), and produced by Camilla Mazzaferro, Michael Hilliard and Casey Ventura, this is the world premiere of A Fire Inside. A reflection on Australia’s horrific 2019-20 bushfires, exploring the selfless actions of the NSW Rural Fire Service and the losses incurred during the 200-day emergency. Featuring interviews with volunteers, farmers, publicans and pensioners, uncovering stories of devastating heartbreak but also of astonishing resilience.


Directed by Ben Lawrence, winner of the 2018 DAF Award for Ghosthunter and 2020 Best Direction of a Feature Film Award for his much-lauded feature Hearts & Bones. Produced by produced by Gabriel Shipton and Adrian Devant. A gripping, behind the scenes portrait of a family in crisis that delves into Julian Assange’s family’s fight for his freedom. Provides an insightful look into the impact that the Wikileaks founder’s infamous arrest has had on his father, fiancé and their two children.

Television Event

Directed by multi award-winning Australian filmmaker, Jeff Daniels (Mother with a Gun) and produced with Amanda Spain. Documentary about The Day After (1983), the made-for-TV movie about a nuclear war that garnered 100 million viewers, and which ultimately helped end the Cold War. A popular rumour is that the TV movie influenced President Ronald Reagan to avoid nuclear war altogether. A behind-the-scenes look at the TV movie’s fraught production, the mass public hype leading up to its premiere, as well as the impact production had in Kansas (where the TV movie was filmed).

Unseen Skies

Debut feature from video journalist Yaara Bou Melhem, who has won two UN Media Peace Awards for her work, and produced with Ivan O’Mahoney (Firestarter). In Unseen Skies, Trevor Paglen, a contemporary artist known for his art on global surveillance, data collection, and artificial intelligence (AI) travels through Nevada to discuss his most audacious project yet: launching a satellite into orbit. The satellite will be a giant, silver baloon which can be seen from Earth – meant to represent everything happening in space that we don’t know about. Paglen aims to prove that outer space doesn’t exclusively belong to the military-industrial complex. Melham photographs secret bases, including Pine Gap in the NT, an intelligence base co-run by Australia and US.


Past winners of the Australian documentary prize at Sydney Film Festival are: Descent (2020); She Who Must Be Loved (2019); Ghosthunter (2018); The Pink House (2017); In the Shadow of the Hill (2016); Only the Dead (2015); 35 Letters (2014); Buckskin (2013); Killing Anna (2012); Life in Movement (2011), and The Snowman (2010). In 2009 the inaugural prize was shared between Contact and A Good Man (each film received a $10,000 cash prize).

The full program for SFF will be announced shortly. Already announced program strands include an Abbas Kiorastami restrospective and the Dendy Short Film Finalists.

The 68th Sydney Film Festival will run Wednesday 3 November to Sunday 14 November 2021.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram