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It's back. The Sydney Film Festival returns in all its celebrated grandeur from June 6 to 20, 1997. The 44th year of the Festival promises to be one of the most exciting and diverse yet. Much is in store for Festival-ites who enjoy a combination of rare classics and undiscovered gems, and if you don't feel like subscribing, there are plenty of special nights to saviour. PAUL FISCHER takes a sneak peek:

Where to start? One of the most anticipated special events at the Festival would have to be the Howard Hawks retrospective, featuring new prints of many classics directed by a true Hollywood rebel, a film maker as unpredictable in his choice of genres as he is original.

The Big Sleep, which re-teamed Bogart and Bacall, remains the quintessential private eye classic, incoherent at times, loosely narrative but wonderfully entertaining. There was an alternate version to the film cut by Hawks following its release, a version that strengthened its narrative and altered many scenes. This version was only recently discovered, and so the Festival will be screening both the new version and scenes from the original, as presented by the UCLA Film Archive. Film lovers will find this a treat not to be missed, and this screening on its own is offered separately from the subscription. The reason for this, says Festival director Paul Byrnes, "is that Big Sleep is a film with a local distributor, and he didn't want it screened at the State. Also, because the Hawks retrospective is a special event that is costing us money, we thought we should have one of the screenings open to non-subscribers."

There's a lot of renewed interest in Hawks whose films are markedly different from many of his Hollywood counterparts. "What was extraordinary about him, was that he crossed so skilfully across so many genres, yet, as a World War II veteran, he also had a harder edge to him as a film maker." All those genres will be tested in the Hawks retrospective, 11 features in all, including seven new prints. Amongst the films to be screened will be John Wayne's astonishing Western Red River, the hilarious His Girl Friday and the Marilyn Monroe classic, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Other special nights include interesting new gay cinema, Queer Zone Films. "In the last 10 years the whole rapid rise of the 'Queer Screen' phenomenon, has made much more gay film making available and accessible to audiences, not just gay audiences", saysByrnes. "The Festival has always reflected, quite strongly, what is happening in gay cinema before it was even called Queer Screen and continues to do so. The growth of something like Queer Screen to us is a welcome follow-on to what we were doing before. Fortunately, there's enough to go around."

There are also special nights devoted to Irish Cinema (including Roddy Doyle's eagerly anticipated The Van), Spanish Cinema and a late show that will screen two contentious American crime dramas: City of Industry and Abel Ferrara's The Funeral, both available to non-subscribers.

(Urban Cinefile readers have a chance to win a double pass to this night of high art and
TRUE GRIT. Glance left for details.)

In the main Festival, you'll see films from Australia, Europe, Asia and Israel, all of which continue to re-define the cultural uniformity of cinema as an art form. There are some superb documentaries, including my own favourite, the very personal and heartfelt A Healthy Baby Girl. (See interview with director Judith Helfand below.) It might be hard to top last year's program, but this Festival could easily be the most interesting and diverse to date.

This is Byrnes' 9th Festival as Director, and one has to wonders whether or not the cultural make up of this Festival differs greatly from its predecessors. "I don't think I have changed, particularly, in my approach. What I do think is the filmmaking changes, the films change, and over 10 years I guess significant changes have occurred in terms of the style of films that people are making." Those changes will be put to the test as subscribers and others flock to the 44th Sydney Film Festival.

A Healthy Baby Girl is not a woman's film by any means. Directed with great insight by Jewish film maker Judith Helfand, the film focuses on Helfand's own plight as a cancer-stricken young woman, diagnosed with a special kind of cervical cancer caused by the synthetic hormone DES (diethylstilbestrol), administered to her mother when she was pregnant with Judith. Hers is quite a story. The director spoke to PAUL FISCHER exclusively from her New York apartment, about her brave, extraordinary life - and the film.

Judith Helfand is one of the bravest women I've met. At the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the press screening for her emotionally charged documentary, A Healthy Baby Girl was not as crowded as it should have been, but those of us present didn't leave the screening unaffected. "It was incredibly important for us to be at Sundance", the director now recalls. "It's important for people to be aware not only of what I was going through, but the dangers of these toxic chemicals that continue to be used." It's hard to know whether Helfand, now 32, would have been as politically passionate or active had it not been for the tragic realisation that she had cancer; a cancer caused by a toxic drug administered to her mother to assist in Judith's birth.

Before the cancer struck, Helfand had always been drawn to the world of documentary cinema. "Ever since I was a little kid I'd been fascinated by documentaries; I really adored newsreels, biographies and documentaries. I remember when I was about 16 and I was watching Public Television and saw this movie called The Weavers, I thought: yeah, THAT'S what I want to do." Before that she had "some wacky idea of being a journalist or photographer and maybe using that to build bridges between Israel and America. It was crazy, but I was this naïve Jewish kid from New York; what the hell did I know, right?"

Helfand had already begun a career in documentary cinema when at age 24 the young filmmaker was diagnosed with a form of cervical cancer. Her only remedy was to undergo a radical hysterectomy. It was a shock to her and her parents, especially knowing that the cancer was the result of the synthetic drug DES used by pregnant women in the fifties. Asked whether she aportioned any blame, directly or subconsciously, on her mother, Helfand is emphatic in her response. "I truly never blamed her." Nor, it seems, does her mother feel guilt. "She's not guilty at all but SO sad. I mean maybe deep down she feels guilty, but it's an illogical guilt, and she knows it, but she never lets me see the depth of her feelings." This despite her visible sadness in the movie - the video diary as it were- that evolved into A Healthy Baby Girl.

Judith felt it was important, for her own sake, to keep some kind of a record of her experiences. She defines the experience less cathartic but more as "a selfish experience in every sense of the word. I ABSOLUTELY refused to be alone with this problem and wanted everybody to know about it." Everybody does, but the film and the experience of making it, also served to strengthen the relationship between mother and daughter. "After Sundance, her mother asked the funniest question: 'So do you think someone will hire you now and you can get a desk?'

With its beautifully evocative Jewish music, Helfand has made a film about family and the importance of relationships, as well as her own odyssey. Not a day goes past, Helfand adds, when she doesn't think of the possibility of the cancer returning, yet she remains optimistic. Her extraordinary brand of optimism and humour, combine to make A Healthy Baby Girl a remarkable work. The gifted director wants to also finally make it clear that her film is not all depressing. "I want you to tell everyone that there's lots ofhumour in the film. In fact, my first joke is seven minutes into the movie."

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Animal Logic has produced the trailer for the Sydney Film Festival: "Immerse Yourself in Film" - see still above

Haunting images from Healthy Baby Girl below

Judith Helfand (left) and her mother

"Judith Helfand is one of the bravest women I've met." Paul Fischer

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