Sydney’s 71st annual film festival is back

Man woman still from movie SEX

The 71st Sydney Film Festival, set for 5-16 June 2024, has unveiled an exciting preview of 17 new films and events, offering a tantalising glimpse ahead of the complete program reveal on Wednesday, 8 May. Festival Director Nashen Moodley highlighted that this year’s lineup explores a rich tapestry of human experience, ranging from gripping true stories to innovative fictional narratives and hybrid films that blur the lines between reality and imagination. With resilience emerging as a central theme, the Festival promises a diverse array of films that promise to engage, challenge, and inspire audiences.

Among the initial selection are two Australian world premieres that are generating significant buzz. In Vitro marks a highly anticipated sci-fi mystery thriller directed by Will Howarth and Tom McKeith, featuring Ashley Zukerman in a futuristic tale set on a remote cattle farm. In The Pool, directed by Ian Darling, offers a poignant cinematic exploration of a year at the iconic Bondi Icebergs, capturing the essence of this beloved location and its community. Notably, directors Howarth, McKeith, and Darling will be present at the Festival to introduce their films.

From across the Tasman, Rachel House makes her directorial debut with The Mountain, a poignant tale of adventure and friendship amidst New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, executive produced by Taika Waititi. This film, eligible for the prestigious First Nations Award, promises to be a highlight of the Festival.

The international selection includes notable festival prize-winners like The Rye Horn, Green Border by legendary filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, and Pepe, a unique narrative featuring a runaway hippo from Pablo Escobar’s zoo. These films, along with Explanation for Everything, a Hungarian satire, underscore the Festival’s commitment to showcasing stories that reflect the zeitgeist.

Additional titles like Sex, The Contestant, and culinary-themed films such as Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros and La Cocina suggest a Festival that not only celebrates cinematic art but also embraces the eccentric and the unconventional. Documentaries like COPA ’71 and The Battle for Laikipia promise to tackle pressing social issues, while special events like Hear My Eyes: Hellraiser are set to offer unique, immersive experiences.

With the Sydney Film Festival’s initial lineup unveiling, the stage is set for a celebration of storytelling that spans genres, continents, and cultures, promising an unforgettable experience for film enthusiasts.

Here are some of the films:

In this clever satire about the culture wars, a Hungarian student is embroiled in a national scandal when he fails his exams, accidentally becoming a figurehead for the right.

On the brink of his final high school exams, Abel is struggling to focus. His loving parents are supportive but also pressure him to perform well. But Abel is hopelessly in love with his best friend, the studious Janka, and incapable of concentrating. When he freezes during the oral component of the history exam, a Hungarian nationality pin he’s absent-mindedly wearing sets off an absurd series of events that come to obsess a nation. Director Gábor Reisz, in expressing deep concern for his bitterly divided country, depicts a scenario that plausibly and frighteningly could take place in many countries in the world.

Legendary filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s gripping refugee thriller raised the ire of some Polish politicians and inspired protests on its way to a box office record. Special Jury Prize, Venice.

Set along the border between Belarus and Poland, Holland’s (Europa, Europa, SFF 1991; Spoor, SFF 2017) striking black and white film looks at how refugees, lured by false promises, fall under the control of callous border guards and sinister politicians. Green Border follows a Syrian family that comes into contact with a young border guard and an activist determined to help. Oscar-nominated Holland’s brilliant direction (in collaboration with associate directors Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha) vividly conveys the terrible moral quandaries faced by these individuals in this urgent film of great political and artistic impact.

Experience Clive Barker’s 1987 extra-dimensional horror classic, re-scored live by EBM explorers Hieroglyphic Being and Robin Fox, and a synched laser-art show at City Recital Hall.

Hellraiser brought the horror genre out of the slasher era and into the realm of emotionally complex dread. A family with secrets. A mystical puzzle box. And a group of sadomasochistic beings threatening to break free from the mouth of hell. For this special event, Hellraiser gets a live rescore by Chicago’s Hieroglyphic Being aka Jamal Moss. He’s a man known for his intense psychedelic music, taking his cues from house, industrial, avant-jazz and noise. And he’s composing alongside laser and audio artist Robin Fox, bringing his epic lasers for full sensory overload! One for EBM heads and Pinheads alike. A special film and live music event not to be missed or forgotten.

A tofu factory in Daegu, Korea, is the setting for this tender, moving, and funny inter-generational family saga – an award-winning highlight of the Busan International Film Festival.

As summer arrives, the entire Kim clan gathers for the annual ceremony dedicated to the ancestors. As they bicker and argue over cooking methods, the hierarchy quickly becomes clear. When young Seong-jin finally arrives from Seoul, where he’s pursuing a career in acting, all attention is diverted to him – the golden grandson expected to continue the family’s legacy and take over the tofu factory. But Seong-jin has plans for his future that disrupt the familial order. As the seasons pass by, the family must contemplate their changing world in this extraordinarily confident debut by director Oh Jung-min.

Ashley Zukerman (Succession) stars in a gripping Australian sci-fi mystery thriller set on a remote cattle farm in the near future.
With cattle production devastated by ecological disasters, Jack (Zukerman) and his wife Layla (Talia Zucker) are conducting biotechnology experiments at their isolated property. While Layla longs for the return of their son from boarding school, Jack carries out research he hopes will save his family from financial ruin. This meticulously written and brilliantly performed feature from Aussie directors Tom McKeith and Will Howarth (Beast, SFF 2016) takes unpredictable turns as gloomy skies gather and the couple’s relationship begins to strain. Strikingly filmed on the eerily dry Monaro Plains of NSW, In Vitro is claustrophobic, suspenseful and scarily believable.

Rooney Mara and Raúl Briones star in this intense comedic drama set during the hectic lunch rush at a New York restaurant, from Mexican maverick Alonso Ruizpalacios (A Cop Movie, SFF 2021).

The Manhattan restaurant The Grill has a capacity of hundreds and a massive international staff to match. Over a very frantic lunch period, cash goes missing from the till. The undocumented cooks are the immediate suspects – Mexican Pedro (Briones) prime amongst them. Charming, rebellious and ambitious, he’s in a relationship with American waitress Julia (Mara), who faces a personal crisis of her own. As matters culinary, political and personal clash, things come to boiling point. Brilliant performances, a fervent political message and directorial flair combine in an explosive, provocative film.

Bhutan, 2006, and the country’s first democratic election is on the horizon. But trouble may be brewing when an elderly monk requests two guns. The latest charmer from Oscar-nominated Pawo Choyning Dorji.
Dorji’s (Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom) Telluride-selected, delightfully droll and slyly satirical film takes place in rural Bhutan during the lead-up to his country’s first-ever election. A trial run with fictional parties is planned to introduce voters to the concept of democracy. But when a dedicated young monk is asked by his elderly lama to bring him two guns before voting begins, it seems trouble is in store. A cavalcade of characters and misadventures ensue, in a tale as suspenseful as it is winning. 

Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) makes her directorial debut with this riotous and colourful drama about three children discovering friendship’s healing power through the spirit of adventure. From executive producer Taika Waititi.

The fearless and determined Sam is a young Maori girl on a mission to win her battle with cancer. She hopes to find strength under the watchful eye of Taranaki Maunga, or Mountain, and so embarks on the adventure of a lifetime. Sam meets some ragtag misfits along the way – the lonely yet adorable Mallory, hoping to find friends, and the fierce Bronco, a runaway from a father who is too busy to notice him. As they go off-the-beaten track, trekking through spectacular New Zealand landscapes, the trio learn the magic of adventure and true connection.

The true-ish story of Pepe the hippo who broke free of Pablo Escobar’s private zoo, featuring deeply philosophical narration from the (multi-lingual) hippo himself. Winner, Silver Bear, Berlinale.
In one of many quixotic decisions, drug lord Pablo Escobar illegally imported a number of hippopotamuses for his private zoo in Colombia. Pepe is the descendant of these pioneer “cocaine hippos”, becoming the first African hippo to ever roam the Americas after breaking free. Alongside his story, the film explores the lives and stories of people Pepe meets – from a Colombian fisherman and his irate wife to a Namibian tour guide. Technically audacious, playfully integrating fiction and non-fiction and in various media, Pepe is quite unlike any film you’ll see this year.

A rural Galician midwife flees after an illegal abortion goes awry in this elemental, visually ravishing exploration of bodies, motherhood and female solidarity. Winner, Best Film at San Sebastián.
In 1970s rural Galicia, the beauty of the golden rye fields belies a hidden desperation. Removed from modern medicine and steeped in strict social mores, the women of an isolated fishing village give birth in extreme agony. Some are compelled to pluck a fungus from the swaying rye for use in infusions that induce abortions. Midwife María spends her time helping mothers-to-be, even as it draws suspicion from the community. When disaster strikes, María must escape to Portugal via an old smugglers’ route, dependent on the kindness of other women. Director Jaione Camborda’s unsparing but vividly immersive film won the top prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.

When a modern-day chimneysweep has sex with a man whose chimney he’s, ahem, cleaning, then tells his wife and his colleague, each is forced to question the quirks of sexuality.

One of the hits of Berlinale 2024, Sex climbs atop the high-rises of a Norwegian city to survey the quizzical contemporary landscape of sex, in which monogamy and fluidity make for uneasy bedfellows. Two married and ostensibly heterosexual friends are unmoored when one of them sleeps with a man and the other begins to question the recurring dreams he’s been having, in which David Bowie gazes at him longingly. Dag Johan Haugerud’s film is funny but also sincere and compassionate, playing out in a series of long, winding, highly articulate conversations. They’re captured by a camera that is fittingly unrestricted, floating between characters mid-scene.

Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, SFF 1997; Personal Shopper) returns with a delightful semi-autobiographical film about art, memory, and love in the time of COVID. The director’s most personal film yet.

As the world goes into COVID lockdown, film director Paul (Vincent Macaigne) and his music journalist brother Etienne (Micha Lescot) take refuge in their childhood home along with their respective partners. In this idyllic countryside home, filled with familiar objects, the brothers must negotiate living together again as the world beyond the house becomes increasingly unstable. Assayas himself narrates, based on his own diary, reflecting on his childhood, his relationship with his intellectual parents, and his deep connection to his childhood home. The result is playful, whimsical, filled with crêpes and charm.


A powerful film set in Kenya’s spectacular Laikipia region, home to traditional herders, wildlife conservationists, and white pastoralists; a place where drought, politics and colonial history collide.

Samburu cattle herders have lived in the region for centuries. Many white landholders were born and raised here. But, after months without rain, once amicable societal relationships are fracturing. In the past, Indigenous herders would have roamed far seeking food and water. But white landholders have erected fences across traditional grazing routes and employed armed guards to protect their property. As the drought deepens and election rhetoric fires up the community, tension escalates. Over five years, Kenyan director Peter Murimi and Greek filmmaker-journalist Daphne Matziaraki skilfully documented this complex, increasingly violent situation, with unresolved colonial legacy meeting climate change head on.

The incredible true story of a TV contestant left naked in a room, unaware his months-long challenge was being broadcast to millions via a Japanese television show
In 1998, a budding actor nicknamed ‘Nasubi’ auditioned for a popular TV producer. Successful, he was led into a room, ordered to strip, and tasked with entering magazine sweepstakes to win what he needed to survive – food and clothing included. Nasubi’s expressive face endeared him to viewers, but the hapless contestant was unaware that his every move was being filmed and aired live, and he’d become a mega-celebrity in Japan. With footage from the show and contemporary interviews with Nasubi and his producer, director Clair Titley uncovers the truth behind one the most extraordinary events ever broadcast, a harbinger for today’s reality television.

COPA ’71
The rip-roaring story, shamefully untold for decades, of the 1971 Women’s Soccer World Cup, revealed by the awe-inspiring players who competed in the trailblazing tournament.

Why haven’t we heard about this global sporting contest, one of the first of its kind, that attracted over 100,000 fans to Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium? Because the players were women, and soccer has long been a man’s game. Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s film sets out to put the record straight – super timely given the sport’s newly minted popularity. Interviews expose systemic sexism and the governing bodies determined to undermine women’s soccer. Threaded throughout is long-lost footage from the 1971 competition, so you can cheer with the crowd as these inspiring but disregarded pioneers step onto the world stage.

Festival favourite Frederick Wiseman (City Hall, SFF 2021) returns with a mouth-watering epic set in a three-Michelin-star French restaurant.

Wiseman shifts his exquisite gaze from US institutions (Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, SFF 2018) and Parisian cultural life (La Danse, SFF 2022) to the world of French gastronomy. The Troisgros family restaurant in France’s Rhône-Alpes region, founded in 1930, has grown into a huge operation. Wiseman captures it all: from the vast kitchens, budding chefs, dedicated local providores and super-efficient waitstaff to the well-heeled patrons. Michel, the third generation to head the restaurant, is preparing to hand the baton to his son. Wiseman (now 93) delivers a luscious and hypnotic portrait of an enduring institution on the verge of change.

A spectacular cinematic portrait of the iconic Bondi Icebergs – the pool and the people who cherish it – from The Final Quarter (SFF 2019) director Ian Darling.

Breathtaking footage and a quintessential soundtrack are woven into a meditative and poetic story. Icebergs is the most photographed pool in the world – an inviting destination for everyone from locals to tourists, beginners to competitive lap swimmers. From sunrise to sundown, rain or shine, we meet the diehard regulars recalling tales of Icebergs past and present. Darling and his team, including DOP Ben Cunningham, editor Sally Fryer and sound designer Paul Charlier, have crafted an evocative, joyous and beautiful picture of a beloved place and its community

Feature image: SEX, reproduced with permission