Ten Standout Films to Watch During the 2020 Sydney Film Festival: Virtual Edition

The festival's first national (and digital) lineup features creepy sea thrillers, tense family dramas and documentaries about age-positive pornography and a forgotten Indigenous Australian.
Sarah Ward
June 11, 2020

When the first Wednesday in June rolled around this year, something was missing. Usually, that's Sydney Film Festival's night of nights — the annual cinema showcase's opening night ahead of 11 more days of movies. But, due to COVID-19, that wasn't the case in 2020. Back in March, SFF cancelled its physical event, then announced an online replacement a month later.

Dubbed Sydney Film Festival: Virtual Edition, the digital-only event isn't quite the same as watching film after film (after film after film) at the State Theatre or Event Cinemas George Street, of course. Still, running from June 10–21, it's a chance to watch 33 movies that you mightn't otherwise get the chance to see — and for audiences Australia-wide to join in. This time, you're just doing so from the comfort of your couch. That should be a familiar feeling thanks to the past few months; however, you're not going to find SFF's 2020 batch of films in your current Netflix queue.

On the agenda: ten movies made by female filmmakers from Europe, ten Australian documentaries covering a broad range of topics and 13 shorts — including three as part of SFF's regular Screenability program that highlights the work of filmmakers and creatives with disability. That's a sizeable at-home offering, so we've watched and reviewed ten titles from the feature lineup. Now, all you need to do is nab an online pass, pop some popcorn and get viewing yourself.



With Sea Fever, first-time feature director Neasa Hardiman gifts viewers a richly atmospheric thriller set within the claustrophobic confines of an Irish fishing trawler. It's a film with a clear cinematic lineage, tracing back to everything from Alien and The Thing to The Abyss. It's also a movie with a timely premise purely by accident, with this isolation and contagion-focused affair first premiering in 2019 long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. More importantly, though, this is an unflinching, smart and suspenseful examination of not only extreme behaviour in close quarters, or of an attack by a monstrous organism from the ocean's depths, but of the discomfort humanity feels when easy answers aren't forthcoming. Also impressive: Hermione Corfield (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi) as student scientist Siobhan, whose arrival on the Niamh Cinn-Oir coincides with a treacherous decision by its captain Gerard (Dougray Scott).



The most striking thing about Force of Habit, a Finnish anthology film that interweaves six shorts into one potent portrait of everyday female life, is just how commonplace its scenarios are. In one, a teenager on a bus is harassed by loutish, entitled boys. In another, a young woman is forced to fend off unwanted sexual attention from a male friend. In yet another, a husband reacts more strongly to his wife's response to being groped publicly by a stranger than to the latter altercation itself. Also examining workplace politics and gossip, legal and bureaucratic barriers, and the normalisation of women as victims that's perpetuated by entertainment, this powerful feature is so filled with recognisable situations that he overall point stressed by filmmakers Alli Haapasalo, Anna Paavilainen, Reetta Aalto, Jenni Toivoniemi, Kirsikka Saari, Elli Toivoniemi, and Miia Tervo — that, for society, instances like these have just become habitual and accepted — proves absolutely searing.



Many a big-screen drama has stepped into the existence of a middle-aged woman unhappy with the state of her life. But fiction couldn't conjure up anything as distinctive, empowering and intriguing as Morgana Muses' tale — with the Albury housewife leaving her husband and small town behind in favour of a feminist pornography career that's earned her acclaim and attention from Melbourne to Berlin. Indeed, it's no wonder that filmmakers Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess were eager to document Morgana's story and share it with the world, including her resolute determination to bravely put herself first, express her own desires, and create both sex-positive and age-positive erotica. Candid and complex, Morgana is the type of subject that all filmmakers wish they could stumble across, as Peppard and Hess continually show in their engaging film.



In Norwegian disaster films The Wave and The Quake, Ane Dahl Torp battled natural forces. As Alice in tense Swedish drama Charter, she battles with the natural maternal instinct to spend time with and protect her children — fighting against her soon-to-be ex-husband (Sverrir Gudnason) who, in an act of retaliation for her unhappiness, won't let her even see her distressed young son Vincent (Troy Lundkvist) or angry teenage daughter Elina (Tintin Poggats Sarri). Amanda Kernell's sophomore feature after the similarly involving Sami Blood, Charter tasks its protagonist with making drastic and difficult choices while trying to evaluate what's right for both herself and her kids. Following Alice's exploits from Sweden's rural climes to the sunny surroundings of Tenerife, this deeply felt film offers not only a blistering showcase for its lead actor, but a perceptive exploration of a parent's continual quest to do what's best even when faced with imperfect options.



Douglas Grant was an ANZAC soldier, a prisoner of the war and, during his time in Germany's Halbmondlager camp during World War I, a driving force in helping his fellow detainees. He was a draughtsman, radio journalist and human rights activist as well, fighting for the fair treatment of his fellow Indigenous Australians almost a century ago. As a child he was also taken from the scene of a North Queensland massacre during the frontier wars, brought up by a Scottish couple and, though treated well by his adoptive parents, considered an 'experiment' outside of his home. Alas, Grant's story isn't as widely known as it should be, so Tom Murray's comprehensive and informative documentary The Skin of Others recounts the crucial details — as aided by lively recreations of Grant's life starring late Australian actor Balang (Tom E.) Lewis (Spear, Goldstone, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) in his final film role.



In her sensitive and affecting debut feature, writer/director Malou Reymann examines a situation that's close to her heart. Following the pre-teen Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt) as her father Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) becomes a woman, the Danish filmmaker draws upon her own story, with Reymann standing in her protagonist's shoes when she was the same age. Dramatised on-screen, the result is a thoughtful and intimate drama that charts the sudden change to Emma's world, and to the soccer-loving girl's relationship with the now football-abhorring Agnete. As well as serving up nuanced, naturalistic performances that convey the full emotional spectrum traversed by Emma and her older sister Caroline (Rigmor Ranthe) as life as they know it changes, A Perfectly Normal Family purposefully refuses to simplify the complicated family dynamics that arise from Agenete's transition.



Also informed by its director's own experiences, Antoneta Kastrati's Zana interrogates the fallout of life-shattering conflict, specifically the lingering impact left by the Kosovo War. A decade afterwards, Lume (Adriana Matoshi) still struggles to cope — particularly with the expectation that she'll bear her husband Ilir (Astrit Kabashi) more children after their young daughter was killed during the combat. Her overbearing mother-in-law (Fatmire Sahiti) shuffles Lume between various healers and mystics, blames superstitions and the supernatural, and even endeavours to motivate her fertility by encouraging Ilir to take a second wife; however, Lume's scars of loss and pain run deep. Matoshi is exceptionally moving as a woman haunted several times over — by her grief, the war, societal expectations and her lack of agency — while Kastrati and Casey Cooper Johnson's script doesn't shy away from Lume's all-encompassing trauma.



SFF's annual showcase of Australian documentaries often skews locally not just on a national but a more intimate level. That's the case with Women of Steel, which heads to Wollongong, to the city's steel industry and into a monumental battle for equality — with women forced to fight for their right to be employed at the steel works after being routinely told that there were no jobs available for them. Through both recent and past interviews, as well as a treasure trove of archival clips, director Robynne Murphy steps through the ups, downs, ins and outs of a movement that she was a part of forty years ago, which gives her film an impassioned and vital feel. In addition to chronicling a chapter of local history that many mightn't be aware of, her documentary also sets Wollongong's Jobs for Women Campaign in context in terms of societal norms and changes, both at the time and over the decades since.



For theatre aficionados, being paid to watch every stage production performed over the course of a year is the stuff that dreams are made of. For 21-year-old Estonian resident Alissija, it's a job — one that specifically advertised for someone who'd never been to the theatre, that requires her to move away from her family to live in Tallinn, and that thrusts her not only into a new field but also firmly outside her comfort zone. It's easy to see why filmmaker Marta Pulk wanted to document this unique story; however she couldn't have predicted Alissija's revelatory reactions to her year-long gig, her existential malaise and her overall journey as she traipses between 224 shows in 365 days. A documentary that's intricately tied to one person, one industry and one country, yet also overwhelmingly universal in its coming-of-age themes, A Year Full of Drama more than lives up to its title.



From gender equality to climate change, The Leadership charts a course through a sizeable array of topical subjects. While this jam-packed documentary touches upon everything from toxic workplace behaviour to the destruction of the natural world, it actually focuses on the Homeward Bound program — which takes talented women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics on a 20-day intensive leadership course while sailing around the Antarctic, with its maiden voyage overseen by Australian leadership expert Fabian Dattner. That trip was notable in a plethora of ways, as Ili Baré's debut feature documentary lays bare. There's so much to cover, so many viewpoints to explore and such a wealth of data to share that The Leadership often feels like it could go in any direction; however when it unpacks the challenges facing Homeward Bound's first participants and facilitators, it does far more than serve up familiar messages amidst scenic icy landscapes.


Sydney Film Festival: Virtual Edition runs from June 10–21, with all films available to stream online. For further information — and to buy virtual tickets — visit the festival's website.

Published on June 11, 2020 by Sarah Ward
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