Blunt’s resident film critic Travis Johnson casts an eye over the offering of the Coffs Harbour Screenwave International Film Festival, and he likes what he sees.
Actually, it’s a Top 15.
I couldn’t help it. This year’s slate from the Screenwave International Film Festival is all killer no filler thanks to the tireless efforts of festival honchos Dave Horsley and Kate Howat. Since 2015, they’ve been building up the Coffs Harbour event to one of the most anticipated dates on the film calendar. Their curatorial skills are truly enviable, to the point where nutting out your festival schedule leads to a lot of Sophie’s Choice moments – you just can’t see it all.
Which means that picking a top 10 for this year got backboarded into the “too hard” basket and I decided to point the interested and discerning viewer to 15 films that are worth your time. Even then, hard calls had to be made – an Aliens retrospective screening didn’t make the cut, for crying out loud. I also skewed a little towards Australian film, of which there are plenty, because it strikes me that a regional Australian film festival is the right setting to take in a lot of Australian film.
Hell, this isn’t even a Top 15, really – think of it as a sampler designed to draw you towards the full program. It’s a truly dizzying array of cinematic treats, but this guide will help you avoid being overwhelmed, starting with…
The world’s favourite cannibal, Mads Mikkelsen, reunites with The Hunt director Thomas Vinterberg for this drunken dramedy that sees four morose middle aged teachers decide to find out if life would be better if they were just a wee bit drunk every waking moment. Of course, that’s a difficult line to toe, and so tragedy and hilarity ensue in roughly equal measure. A sublime look at the joys and pitfalls of drinking culture – they should show it in schools.
A truly bonkers French/Brazilian Weird Western that sees the titular rural town wracked with political turmoil, oceans of spilled blood, and the odd UFO and/or ghost. It’s kind of like if Sergio Leone directed a Gabriel García Márquez novel, or perhaps if Alejandro Jodorowsky got tapped to direct a straight-to-Netflix action movie. Beginning with the rote genre set-up of a stranger (Bárbara Colen) arriving in in a troubled town, the film delights in subverting expectations, building up to a bloody and surreal conclusion that raises as many questions as it answers. Sônia Braga and Udo Kier co-star.
Australia’s greatest war film sees three Aussie soldiers (Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald) on trial for war crimes. The penalty is death. Defending them is an untried Australian attorney (Jack Thompson). Did they do it? That’s kind of beside the point. Clear-eyed and cynical, this is both a stirring old-fashioned adventure and a savage indictment of the horrors of colonialism. It’s also one of a number of Jack Thompson films on the slate this year, with the acting legend appearing as a guest of the festival.
One of the most acclaimed documentaries of the past year, this utterly enthralling Romanian film delves into the aftermath of a Bucharest nightclub fire in 2015. What starts as a tragedy evolves into a nationwide scandal reaching into the upper echelons of power as journalist Cătălin Tolontan uncovers widespread corruption in the country’s medical system. A masterful procedural that’s all the more impactful for being true.
Not content with appearing in just one of the greatest concert films of all time (that’s by Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense), David Byrne decided to go for a twofer, this time trusting legendary filmic firebrand Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Da Five Bloods, etc) to handle behind-the-camera duties. The result is an absolutely electrifying cinematic and musical experience, as Byrne takes us through the length and breadth of his nigh-unparalleled career.
This year’s opening night film is a Western Australian Western and the debut feature from director Roderick MacKay. After his friend and mentor is murdered, young Afghan cameleer Hanif (Ahmed Malek) must team up with a mysterious bushman, Mal Riley (David Wenham), carrying stolen gold bars marked with the Crown’s insignia. If they can melt them down, Hanif’s share will get him home to Afghanistan – but all kinds of nasty characters are on Mal’s trail. This is a cracking adventure that pulls the sheet back on a forgotten and fascinating corner of Australian history.
Everyone’s heard of Shaolin kung fu monks, but what about Catholic kung fu monks? The very idea should pique your interest and get you in front of this intriguing documentary by Valentina Pedicini, which takes us into the world of The Warriors of Light, an ascetic sect of Italian penitents who practice complex martial arts, intense ritual prayer, and ecstatic dance in preparation for… well, that would be telling. A fascinating portrait of…well, the title says it all.
Debut director Viggo Mortensen (yes, Aragorn himself) gives veteran actor Lance Henriksen (yes, Bishop himself) the role of his career in this challenging drama, in which Mortensen’s gay military man must care for his ageing father (Henriksen), whose iron grip on his family is starting to slip in the face of age, alcoholism, infirmity and dementia. You know how you always hurt the ones you love? It goes the other way, too.
An exhilarating documentary that looks at the history and undeniable impact of Australia’s premier and first Indigenous dance company, from its founding back in 1989 as an outgrowth of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) to its current position very near the apex of the cultural heap, as one of Australia’s most revered cultural institutions and indeed, the most successful Indigenous arts company in the world. Celebratory but occasionally sombre and unafraid of grappling with the politics underpinning the art, this is essential.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant fell in love with the young woman whose picture she was commissioned to paint. In Jumbo, she falls in love with a rollercoaster. That’s not a euphemism: she wants to do the Wild Mouse. In the real world this kink is called, predictably enough, objectophilia, and covers people falling for inanimate objects. Director Zoe Wittock approaches the subject with humour, pathos and tenderness. It’s framed as a genuine romance – it’s just that one partner runs on rails. Hypnotic, provocative, and compelling.
The story of David Gulpilil parallels the story of the modern Australian film industry, so what are we to make of the fact that the revered Indigenous actor is facing the final curtain? This is just one question that comes to mind when contemplating Molly Reynolds’ biographical documentary, which traces Gulpilil’s career from his early ‘70s prominence with films like Walkabout, his late career acclaim for his collaborations with Rolf de Heer, and all points in between and past.
Adapting the acclaimed novel of the same name, director Václav Marhoul maps a near-literal hell on earth in this World War II drama, which follows the fortunes of a young Czech as he fights to survive the horrors of the conflict. Shot in stark black and white, this is nonetheless a harrowing portrait of war that will definitely fall into “never watch twice” territory for some. When the closest point of comparison is Soviet WWII nightmare Come and See, you’ve been fairly warned.
Art or empathy can change lives, but together they can turn them right around. That’s the thesis of this incredible documentary, which traces the relationship between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Norwegian addict and petty criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland, who she meets when he’s on trial for stealing two of her works. Intrigued, she asks him to pose for her, and so begins an extraordinary journey of communication and redemption.
One of the most wildly acclaimed horror films of the past 12 months, Saint Maud is surely the scariest film at this year’s festival. Crazy-religious (or maybe just crazy and religious) palliative care nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) becomes convinced she’s been sent to save the soul of her latest charge, hedonistic Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is staring down the barrel at the great beyond. For her part, Amanda wants Maud to question the underpinnings of her fierce faith and perhaps even enjoy life a little – but those two opposing drives are going to yield horrific results. Smart, atmospheric, and unsettling, this is the latest addition to the pantheon of new horror classics.
The 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial Australian films is marked in fine style with a special screening accompanied by a live soundtrack by the Rhyece O’Neill Band. When young, refined teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is assigned to a bleak outback town, he enters a world where masculinity is defined by your ability to drink, fight, shoot, and…not much more. A slow descent into madness and perversity ensues. This film scandalised the country on release in 1971, and still retains the power to shock today.
Screenwave International Film Festival takes place in Coffs Harbour from April 14th to 29th. For full details, hit up the official site.