Right Now’s Sydney Film Festival 2017 picks

By Samaya Borom, Rachael Imam and Vanessa McQuarrie
Austerlitz film still by Sergei Loznitsa
Image: Austerlitz, Sergei Loznitsa (2016)

The 2017 Sydney Film Festival is underway. Below our reviewers reflect on four films that explore human rights and social justice issues, along with the universality of humanity.

Austerlitz | Sergei Loznitsa
Review by Vanessa McQuarrie

Compelling and confronting, Sergei Loznitsa’s black and white documentary, Austerlitz, captures streams of visitors as they tour the Nazi death camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen at peak season in summer.

Shot with fixed cameras at key positions throughout the camps, including the Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) sign at the entrance, the torturous standing cells and courtyard where strappados (pole hangings) occurred, and inside the ‘showers’ where prisoners were gassed, the film is difficult viewing – largely due to the behaviour and reactions of the tourists.

Many take photos and even pose for selfies below the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. One stages his own strappado and has his partner take a snap. Another props herself against a gas chamber and smiles brightly for her companion’s camera. Most are preoccupied with the everyday – the heat, when and where they can eat lunch, whether they can balance a water bottle on their head, what their children are doing over there …. Very few seem moved or shocked or outraged or disgusted or in any way affected by what they see.

The camera only sometimes sees what the tourists do. There’s no voiceover or interjections by the filmmaker. Only the occasional snippet of conversation or commentary from the tour guides. By focusing purely on the visitors to the sites, their behaviour and reactions, Loznitsa questions our relationship with history and remembrance, and our response to what clearly remains an unfathomable horror.

Last Men in Aleppo | Feras Fayyad
Review by Rachael Imam

When the bombs are dropped on Syria, the White Helmets are the ones pulling people from the rubble. Last Men in Aleppo takes us into the daily lives of some of these men, where the ordinary acts of shopping in the market or playing with their children are interrupted by the roar of a warplane, and the sounds of destruction that send them running in the direction of danger.

Director Feras Fayyad has created a film that cuts through the media coverage and political analysis of the Syrian conflict, and presents us with a very real, very human account of the loss that this war continues to cause. The rescues themselves are sobering to watch, as body after body is discovered and pulled free. But it is the time spent between the violence that is truly revealing. The rare moments of quiet are spent discussing the situation around them, sharing jokes, and vocalising their many fears, for their country, for their families and for themselves. Once ordinary citizens, the men of the White Helmets have taken on an unimaginable role, where death is the expected norm and the occasional prolonging of life is all that you have to keep you going.

Confronting and emotionally exhausting to watch, Last Men in Aleppo is an essential reminder of what we are really talking about when we talk about the war in Syria – we are talking about people.

Defiant Lives | Sarah Barton
Review by Samaya Borom

Sarah Barton’s Defiant Lives details the struggle for disability rights in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Featuring interviews with key disability activists and supplemented with archival footage, the film provides powerful insight into the treatment of people with disabilities from the 1960s to today.

Barton’s film explores the recent shift in conversations around disability, from disability being viewed as troublesome and something to be pitied, to disability being centred on respect and recognition of rights. Yet people living with disabilities are still institutionalised and hospitalised in alarming numbers; Barton estimates around 30,000 people under 65 in Australia and more than 2 million in the United States.

Institutionalisation is not the only struggle activists have fought against. Disability as a spectacle, as entertainment to aid fundraising, only disappeared from television screens recently. American comedian Jerry Lewis’ annual Las Vegas telethon in 2011 paraded child wheelchair users across the stage in a bid to elicit donations, and telethons in the United Kingdom and Australia, up until 1992 and 2000 respectively, used similar tactics.

Defiant Lives tells the powerful story of disability activists fighting against entrenched attitudes towards disability and highlights the ongoing struggle for recognition of rights that able-bodied people often take for granted.

Wolf and Sheep | Shahrbanoo Sadat
Review by Vanessa McQuarrie

Set in remote Afghanistan, Wolf and Sheep gives festival audiences around the globe a rare glimpse of daily life in an isolated shepherd community, where things are simple but not uneventful. Interspersed with reality is the historic tale from local mythology, which sees a wolf shed its skin to transform into a beautiful green fairy.

The main characters are mostly children (none of whom are actors), who mimic their elders in every way – gossiping, arguing, swearing, and making up magical fables of their own. Cliques of girls and boys spend their days apart in the mountains, while watching over sheep and goats. The boys practice with their slingshots, the girls act out future marriages.

Ostracised from the others, Qodrat, a daydreaming boy and Sediqa, a young girl who everyone believes was cursed by her grandmother, begin to form a friendship. Defying the norm Sediqa is making a slingshot and Qodrat helps her weave it.

Wolf and Sheep is completely absorbing in part because of the uniqueness of the setting and conversely, because of the universality of its themes. The storytelling and the mythical element take the film to another level, that of magical realism.  It is a winning combination – Wolf and Sheep won the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2016.

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