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Hunter Cordaiy suggests that the Sydney Film Festival poses some big questions – and wonders if they are all fully answered….

The Sydney Film Festival is arguably the most important film event in the cultural calendar for Sydney, and with 45 festivals to date the event is a stable slot in the notoriously transitory Sydney arts scene.

"The Festival has highlighted the weakness of much film writing in this town"

The Festival can be relied upon to provide a vibrant window onto the array of films not slated for distribution in Australia in the coming year (perhaps only 40 out of the 180 scheduled films will eventually gain Australian distribution) and also a distinct vision of what international film-makers are saying, from the rogue independents to the almost predictable art house.

The Festival reminds us that cinema is also an important cultural space for visiting film-makers and commentators who become interview fodder for local critics. And this is the other side of the Festival which deserves more attention - the event is two way and in recent years the critical response to the Festival has highlighted the weakness of much film writing in this town.

The problem is best expressed like this: How do reviewers, trained and fed on an endless diet of Hollywood cuisine ordinaire react when – suddenly - over 15 days, they are presented with what cinema really is; diverse, multi-cultural and intellectually challenging?

"Sydney's Festival prides itself on having ... both screenings and discussion."

Because the Festival is not a market there are no big announcements of deals done or prices paid, and few stars come to Sydney for the event. What Sydney's Festival prides itself on is being a film-makers/film audience Festival, and that means one which has both screenings and discussion.

There are, for instance, a series of forums in which the big issues are debated such as film funding (a crucial topic in Australia at the moment), censorship, the future or documentary, and film makers available for questioning by the general audience. The inability of mainstream reviewers to come to terms with ways of reporting these intellectual spaces within the Festival is an embarrassing weakness.

The Sydney Film Festival is presented in the classical opulence of the State Theatre, a genuine 1920's 'palace' , and the nearby Pitt Centre multiplex . The programs for these venues are variously presented under the logo's of The Panorama and The Edge, representing a basic curatorial distinction between an overview of world cinema and a program including documentaries and in-depth mini-programs from Africa, Wales and a retro collection of Frank Capra films.

"The most important sub-season will be from Africa"

The Panorama sessions have some real gems, including Cannes '97 winner The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), The Apostle (Robert Duval) and Funny Games (Michael Haneke) but The Edge sessions is where the curatorial strength of the Festival should be judged. These films are quirky and surprising, coming from the margins of international production in many cases. This year the most important sub-season will be from Africa - it's almost ten years since a major retrospective of African cinema was presented in Australia, and the Festival has films from Mali., Tunisia, Madagascar and Senegal.

The Edge also has documentaries ranging from the curious (a survey of Tarzan characters in film history) to the confronting (the Wasteland's study of Romanian gypsies and Chile, Obstinate Memory directed by Patricio Guzman). Supporting the documentary strand is a personal visit from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus with an all night screening of their work.

"The Festival poses some big questions... "

Woven into the program is a series of 'specials' including new French cinema, new media art from Germany, Jazz and new films from Vietnam and Wales.

Beyond the desire to see all the films on show, the Festival poses some big questions about the enthusiasm of local film-makers for seeing overseas product of such variety, the standard of critical writing and the range of films in distribution in Australia. Whilst these might sound like one writer's hobby horses, they are at the centre of an on-going debate about the quality of cultural (screen) life.

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5 June - 19 June, 1998


Winter Sleepers - German Cinema

Dry Cleaning - French Cinema

Funny Games

Sweet Hereafter

The Apostle

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