Cinephile, producer, critic, commentator and former CEO of the Australian Film, Television & Radio School (AFTRS) Rod Bishop is also a member of the Sydney Film Festival Film Advisory Panel (FAP). Panelists view hundreds, possibly thousands of films submitted to the SFF unsolicited and after payment of a fee. A small number get through this process and make it into the programme. (As a one time member of FAP, I don’t recall any of my recommendations making it to the Big Show.) This year Rod unearthed this high quality American indie. He has also gathered up some notes about some high quality films that didn’t make it through the process in previous years.
Free In Deed (Jake Mahaffey, USA, 2015)
Sydney Film Festival screenings June 9th at 6.00 pm @ Event 8 and June 11th at 4.10 pm at DOQ2. Director in attendance at both screenings.
American writer-director Jake Mahaffy, now an Auckland resident, made a strong impression in 2008 with the pyramid-selling salesman satire Wellness. His second dramatic feature Free In Deed, set around a Pentecostal “storefront” church in Memphis, will lift his stakes in the American Indie echelon.
Abe (David Harewood) has found some kind of redemption in the church, “faith healing” members of the congregation and is reputed to have saved a man from cancer. Yet he always seemed displaced in church activities, constantly mumbling prayers and awkwardly participating in activities. Melva (Edwina Findley, the only other professional actor in the cast) has an autistic son and is so impressed by Abe as both a healer and a man, she allows him to preside over two weeks of intervention exorcisms to rid the boy of the affliction.
Using real Pentecostal congregations in a real church Mahaffy quietly creates an immersive world, increasingly claustrophobic and increasingly emotionally distressing. It’s a remarkable achievement, possibly “way too Indie” for some, but it lodges in the mind and is not easily forgotten.
Winner of Best Film in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival. Viewed as a screener submitted to the Sydney Film Festival Film Advisory Panel.
Film Advisory Panel notes
Hundreds of unsolicited features and shorts are submitted to the Sydney Film Festival every year. A Film Advisory Panel trawls through these entries looking for worthwhile films that might have been missed by the programmers during their annual pilgrimages to international festivals. My hit rate on this panel is about one serious recommendation every couple of years. Most recommendations don’t gain selection for a variety of reasons – lack of slots, program balance or just not good enough. The pay-off is seeing a huge range of films that lie under the radar. Some make it to cable, some are selected in other festivals, but many never make it to big screens, small screens, locally released digital discs or streaming sites.
For those interested, here are some films I have seen from the last 10 years that didn’t make the final cut, but made my time on the Film Advisory Panel worthwhile.
A Guest of Life, (Hungary 2006). Musician Tibor Szemzo turned to documentary filmmaking to trace the remarkable and almost unbelievable story of 19 th Century Transylvanian traveller Alexander Csoma de Koros who spoke 20 living and dead languages*. Csoma spent eight years walking from Transylvania through Bucharest to Sofia, down to Alexandria (by boat) and then on foot to Bagdad, Tehran, Kabul and into Tibet where he read, abstracted and annotated over 105,000 pages in 325 volumes of Tibetan literature. He produced both a Tibetan-English dictionary and a Tibetan grammar and is now recognised as the founder of Tibetology.
*Latin, Greek, German, Hungarian, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Russian, Slavic (Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian), Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hindustani, Bengali, Pashtu and Marathi
A Screaming Man (Chad, 2010). A boy is forcefully taken into the army to fight in Chad’s civil war. His initially compliant father, discovering his son’s girlfriend is pregnant, sets out to find him. Jury Prize winner at Cannes, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Grisgris).
Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (Vietnam, 2014). The title undoubtedly loses a lot in translation, but this strikingly unique drama, with its moments of magic realism, tells of the interactions between a pregnant Hanoi teenager, her transgender best friend and a wealthy client from an upmarket escort agency. Very impressive first feature from Diep Hoang Nguyen.
Sikander, (India 2009). A 14-year- old boy in Kashmir is recruited into Islamic terrorism. Piyush Jha gives it full Bollywood treatment – song and dance routines and an obligatory “Interval”.
The Man From Oran (Algeria, 2015). Revolutionary fighters who helped liberate Algiers from the French move into influential positions in the new government. Lyes Salem’s film starts more or less where Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers finished.
Siberia, Monamour (Russia, 2011). Remarkably neglected, underrated and ignored Siberian taiga drama about a boy waiting for his father to come home while living with his grandfather in a wilderness controlled by feral dogs. When Russian soldiers arrive on a chaos-creating alcohol-fuelled bender, the boy’s life is changed forever. Feature film making is at times wretched and heartbreaking and it’s extraordinary the talented writer-director Vyacheslav Ross (aka Slava Ross) has not made a film since. At least the brilliant cinematographer Yuriy Rayskiy has found further work.